Agence France Presse
Published — Sunday 6 October 2013
Last update 6 October 2013 1:11 am
Hungary’s estimated 30,000 homeless face an uncertain winter after new laws against sleeping rough were approved this week allowing municipalities to create vagrant-free urban areas.
They mean that places such as pedestrian zones, parks, playgrounds, or underpasses can be declared off-limits for rough sleeping for public order, health or safety reasons.
Those who refuse to budge after receiving warnings risk being sent on public works schemes, given fines or even jail terms for repeat offenses.
UN World Heritage zones, which includes swathes of central Budapest, will now automatically be no-go-areas for the homeless, while people in “unauthorized” self-made shacks could face fines and possibly prison.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the legislation was an example of the “undermining” of EU values and rights protection since Prime Minister Viktor Orban came to power in 2010.
It said the measures continued a “war” on the homeless, already victimised by previous bylaws in some municipalities banning sifting through bins or sleeping in underpasses.
Hungary was already warned against “criminalising” the homeless earlier this year by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s legal affairs watchdog.
“It would be better if the government tried to find solutions in social policy rather than punishing people who in most cases haven’t chosen to be in that situation,” Tessza Udvarhelyi, an activist with The City Belongs to Everyone rights group in Budapest, told AFP.
She called on the president not to sign off on the new law.
The government says the legislation will keep public spaces clean and in order, as well as encourage the homeless to escape freezing winter temperatures by sheltering in hostels.
“As well as homeless people, we have to look after those in society who expect safe, clean public spaces,” Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party said on the day of the vote on Monday.
“People who would like to sit down on a playground bench with their grandchildren but are afraid of doing so for public health reasons have rights too,” added Tamas Lukacs, a deputy with the Christian Democrats, Fidesz’s junior coalition partner.
The constitutional court threw out an earlier version of the homeless law last year, judging it “unconstitutional” and infringing “human dignity,” but this year parliament voted to embed the law in the constitution, hence bypassing the court’s ruling.
Municipalities are obliged by the constitution to provide accommodation, according to the government, and central funding to improve existing facilities and open new ones has sharply increased.
The number of deaths caused by exposure in recent winters has also fallen to almost zero since the laws have been tightened, from over 100 during the term of the previous Socialist-led government, it added.
To charges that the law is inhumane, government spokesman Ferenc Kumin said Friday that it was “more callous to leave people to live on the streets exposed to the elements when we know that the result is more people dying.”
Yet many homeless people prefer to take their chances outside the hostels.
Gyula Balog, a 54-year-old rights activist who was homeless for 17 years, says forcing masses of people into overcrowded and often run-down buildings is not the solution.
“Many of them are crumbling communist-era workers’ hostels with bad heating and plumbing,” he told AFP.
“People often have to sleep in corridors or on tables, as there are not enough places, contrary to what the government says, particularly during the winter, and the risk of theft or getting beaten up is real.”
Balog warned that the law could force homeless people into hiding rather than hostels, leaving them vulnerable during the winter.
He advocates instead state-subsidised housing and support for renovations of derelict or empty flats and houses.
“Homeless people face a lot of discrimination and are typically lonely,” he said.
“They need their own little space to maintain some dignity, privacy and independence, and a chance of eventually getting a proper job and a place to rent and call home.”