Hungarian Court Decision Strips Homeless People of their Humanity

The Hungarian Constitutional Court has ruled that homelessness “is not part of the right to human dignity” which means the criminalisation and imprisonment of homeless people is constitutional.

Regional judges appeal after homelessness originally outlawed

The general prohibition against living in public premises was taken to the constitutional court after an amendment of the Fundamental Law in 2018. The Act on Misdemeanours was also amended in October 2018. After the new law came into effect, homeless people disappeared from Budapest underpasses, and a handful of misdemeanour proceedings, starting with demonstrative police confinements were launched countrywide.

Judges from various cities appealed to the Constitutional Court, because in their view, the rules were unconstitutional. The Misdemeanour Working Group also submitted a detailed opinion to the Constitutional Court.

Constitutional Court rules against, but not unanimously

The Constitutional Court claimed in its decision, that the criminalisation and imprisonment of homeless people does not conflict with the Fundamental Law of Hungary, as homelessness “is not part of the right to human dignity.” This suggests that most of the constitutional judges think that poverty is a choice and a way of life, rather than a state of total social exclusion.

The decision was not unanimous, with five of the judges dissenting. Balázs Schanda was one of them, who in a separate opinion, stated that “a punishable offence is an infringement of the Fundamental Law if its purpose is not to care and supply for those in need. […] The social challenge of housing poverty cannot be remedied by the Constitutional Court, but it cannot forget the social reality in its role to protect constitutionality.”

Shelters are full or overcrowded as the state fails to act

The Constitutional Court is aware of the serious shortcomings of the care system. The Shelter Foundation, which has several decades of experience in providing support to homeless people, provided the Court with details on the occupancy rate at night shelters. In winter the shelters are usually 97 percent full, and many night shelters are overcrowded on cold days. This tells us that there is no free capacity in the care system for homeless people who are sanctioned for living on the streets.

The Misdemeanour Working Group, which is made up of civil rights advocates, has called the court's majority decision unacceptable. Homeless people are being pushed out of society because the State is failing to act.

“It is clear that the Court does not consider homelessness a serious crisis situation but rather as a behaviour to be criminalised. It argues that confinement as a sanction would be only used as a last resort, whereas homeless people can end up in detention after three warnings, which could be issued in a matter of 10 minutes.” said Ágnes Kalota, a lawyer for the Misdemeanour Working Group.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Street Lawyer Association are working together for a fairer system with the Misdemeanour Working Group.