Perhaps I haven’t spent enough time on the plight of the homeless in Hungary. The United Nations estimates the number of homeless people in Hungary at 30-35,000, of whom about 8,000 are in Budapest. Some of them live in homeless shelters; others, afraid of being robbed, refuse to go there. In any case, there are only about 5,500 places, which is not enough. Some of those counted as homeless managed to build primitive huts in the mountains in Buda.
It was clear from the start that this government was not going to try to find a humane solution to a growing problem. Instead, its goal was to hide the homeless from sight. Surely, they are not good for tourism. So, let’s expel them by force of law from the most frequented places.
István Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest, was one of the first who decided “to solve” this problem. The Fidesz majority on the City Council passed a local ordinance that banned the homeless from public places. Some people in the central government liked this idea so much that they proposed a law that extended the ban to the whole country. Offenders could have been jailed or fined up to $650. Fining people who can barely keep body and soul together is naturally a ludicrous idea. Punishing somebody with a jail sentence because he has no shelter over his head is inhumane.
Last November the Constitutional Court found this law unconstitutional. (Today such a verdict would be unimaginable. By now the overwhelming majority of the judges were nominated by the government and voted in by Parliament with a two-thirds Fidesz majority.) That something is found unconstitutional never bothered the Orbán government, which considers itself the paragon of democratic virtue. Since due to pressure from the European Union the Hungarian government had to change some sections of the new constitution anyway, they smuggled in an entirely new provision that allowed municipalities to declare living in public places illegal “in order to protect public order, public security, public health and cultural values.” Both the European Parliament and the United Nations condemned the law.
Kristina Jovanovski wrote a long article about the plight of the homeless in Hungary for Al Jazeera and interviewed Magdalena Sepulveda, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, who told her that Hungary wasn’t the only country that bans behavior linked to homelessness, but “what makes Hungary stand out … is that such a law has been put into the country’s constitution.”
So, let’s see what the new law says. The law decrees it a misdemeanor if a homeless person frequents places designated as “world heritage” sites. In Budapest this is quite an extensive area For example, the whole Andrássy út, the region around the Gellért Hotel in Buda, the castle area, the area around the Chain Bridge, the Gellért Mountain, the Royal Castle, Szabadság tér, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Parliament building, and the buildings on the Pest side of the Danube all the way to the Petőfi Bridge.
It is unlikely that the law will apply only to “world heritage sites” for long. In Budapest the mayor of Budapest has the right to designate any area taboo that he feels needs such protection. Moreover, the district mayors can request additional sites, which István Tarlós must grant. Those homeless people who are caught in the forbidden parts of the city can be forced to perform public work. If the person refuses, he will be fined 300,000 forints or $1,300. If the authorities catch him twice within half a year, the person will be automatically jailed. Moreover, as the result of a last-minute amendment, the law became even more punitive. Building a hut in some far-away wooded area situated either on public or on private land without permission is also considered to be a misdemeanor.
Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP), a member of the parliamentary committee on human rights, released a communiqué in which she calls attention to some provisions of the law that at first glance might not be obvious to everyone. In the areas designated as “world heritage” sites, a homeless person doesn’t have to do anything in the least criminal. It would be enough if someone who looked like a homeless person walked along peacefully, for example, on Andrássy út. These sites are now declared to be “homeless-free zones.”
Kristina Jovanovski got in touch with a government official who explained that the law was adopted “to enable local governments to handle the issue of homelessness, and so to assure order in public spaces and increased public safety.” Furthermore, the government spokesman admitted that permitting the homeless in public spaces “poses problems from a cultural point of view when it comes to the … accessibility of certain public areas, including areas frequented by a large number of people and also in terms of the protection of historical buildings.”
So, this is where we stand now. A dictate on how to handle the homeless is part of the Hungarian constitution. One would think that a democratic country’s constitution would be designed to defend the rights of its citizens and not contain punitive measures against certain segments of the population. But, of course, Hungary is straying farther and farther from democratic principles.
Soon enough the constitution will be a motley assortment of bits and pieces of legislation. Control of utility prices will also be included in the sacred Basic Law of Viktor Orbán. This is the constitution that Viktor Szigetvári and Gordon Bajnai of Együtt 2014-PM want to “improve.” No, this constitution must be thrown into the garbage as soon as this government is gone.