Hungarian Government Shifts up a Gear in War on Homeless

The ruling Fidesz party has introduced a law making rough sleeping illegal as it ramps up its attacks on the most vulnerable in society.

The Punitive State: if you can’t solve it, ban it

Harassment of and discrimination against the homeless is nothing new in Hungary; persecution of homeless people began when Fidesz came into government in 2010 and has continued ever since. In summer 2018, the two-thirds majority in parliament banned homelessness country-wide, making the lives of one of the most vulnerable social groups even harder. The Law on Petty Offences was modified along with the seventh amendment to the Fundamental Law, which came into force on 15th October 2018.

The amendments bring major changes

The government has taken away local communities’ right to make their own decision on this issue. Until now, local governments had the right to decide about banning homelessness in their area, but from now on, being homeless is a criminal offence across country, and homeless people will be offenders.

Previously, infringing the “rules of residing on public premises for habitation” was punishable by community service or a fine. However, the new regulations allow for offenders to be sent to prison. The previous rules were hardly ever used by police: since the end of 2016 no petty offence procedures were initiated for rough sleeping. According to a media report, a major police action is expected to happen on October 16th-17th, on the eve of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty 2018 to “wipe out” homeless people from public spaces.

According to the new regulation, if someone is caught sleeping rough three times, the punitive machine kicks into action. Police may act against one homeless person multiple times a day and on the fourth warning in a 90-day period the police are obliged to initiate a petty offence procedure. In such a case, the offender of a petty offence must be immediately be detained for 72 hours or until a final decision is made, which may take several weeks. After three offences, the petty offence is punishable by community service or a prison sentence of one to 60 days. A person who has been convicted by a court twice in six months has to be punished with a prison sentence.

Custodial sentence instead of housing policy and meaningful social social policy intervention

The seventh amendment to the Fundamental Law prescribes that the protection of Christian values is an obligation for every state body. We see it as a fundamental contradiction that the same amendment launched discriminatory and humiliating measures against homeless people.

The aim of the regulation is to make homelessness invisible, and to force homeless people into shelters by threatening them with imprisonment. However, neither social services, the authorities, nor law enforcement agencies are prepared to receive thousands of people or to manage social problems using criminal policy. The expected effect of the amendment is that those living in public areas will be excluded from cities and will retire to places where they have less or no access to public services, which only increases their social isolation. The regulation is not going to solve the habitation problems of homeless people, and public areas will not be cleaner either. However, the burden on authorities, social services and law enforcement institutions, as well as discrimination against the homeless in society will significantly increase.

Tens of millions of Hungarian forints spent on imprisonment, yet no real solutions found by stakeholders

No official statistics have been released on the number of people living on the streets and in shelters. It is estimated that 12,000-13,000 people in Hungary are affected by homelessness, while tens of thousands are threatened by losing their homes due to debts or high rents on the unregulated property market. However, according to the Ministry of Human Resources, the number of places available for homeless people in the country is only 9,600, with an additional 1,500 places that can be used in “crisis situations”.

Even if there were enough spaces, families cannot stay together in shelters. Men and women are separated, while children are taken into public care if their families lose their accommodation. Meanwhile, according to the data requested by the NGO The City is for All, there are 2,500 empty flats in Budapest, owned by municipal governments, that are not given to those in need. Local governments of the Hungarian capital spend at least 190 million forints annually on maintaining empty flats, and last year, at least 346 flats owned by local governments were sold to private buyers.

The Petty Offences Working Group believes that budgetary resources should be spent on preventing homelessness; specifically preventing families becoming indebted and losing their homes, not on the imprisonment of the vulnerable. Detaining an offender for one day costs approximately 8,000 forints. Based on the statistics of unpaid fines, homeless people have spent 70 days in detention in total since 2012.

Orbán’s government heads towards arbitrary rule

This is in line with the series of steps the Fidesz government has taken to demolish the rule of law, which have so far resulted in a decrease in the power of the Constitutional Court, and a threat to function of checks and balances. For the past few years, the Fidesz government has attacked independent human rights NGOs and several higher education institutions, and has succeeded in narrowing down the selection of independent press publications.

After it achieved another two-thirds majority in the parliamentary elections of 2018, the series of attacks against independent NGOs continued with the adoption of new laws. The independence of courts and the freedom of research and education are under threat. Government propaganda has resulted in a surge in xenophobia, and the number of victims of constant hostility is on the rise. The latest steps of this authoritarian way of exercising power are prospects of a 25% penalty tax on organisations dealing with refugees, as well as the threat of spending one year in prison for helping refugees.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Street Lawyers’ Association are members of the Petty Offences Working Group.