A Brief Insight: Homelessness in Budapest

Homeless men sleep on old benches at Erzsébet Square

The City Is For All, a social justice and housing rights organization based in Budapest, defines homelessness broadly, including those on the edge of homelessness, those facing possible eviction, and those simply struggling to keep the lights on and themselves off the streets. Outside, it’s the bodies slumped over park benches, huddled in building entrances on salvaged sheets of cardboard at night, and wrapped in ratty sleeping bags in subway stations and forests that satisfy the basest definition of the homeless, those people otherwise known as Budapest’s “rough sleepers”.

Their obvious presence in the city is surprising in spite of the law introduced here two years ago by the current government to make rough sleeping illegal. Western media– including Human Rights Watch and NPR– and sympathizing citizens cried foul as the new law quickly swept through Parlament and the streets, cleaning up the most heavily infested areas of the first district’s Móricz Zsigmond körtér and Lake Feneketlen and the forested areas in the eastern section of the tenth district.

Nora Bagdi, manager of the day and night shelters at Menedékház Alapítvány

Good intentions notwithstanding, the government’s actions drove the roofless denizens into the city’s already overcrowded shelters. A social worker at Menedékház Alapítvány, Nora Bagdi says that the Orbán government was unprepared for this outcome, but that the aim was “not to keep them alive in the streets, it’s to put them in institutions.” This, in itself, she holds, is a basic violation of a human right to live freely where one chooses.  At Menedékház Alapítvány, secluded in a walled community in Buda’s eleventh district, Nora acts as the manager of the day and night shelters, which, combined, has the capacity of 80 beds. Currently, the shelter is at 100% occupancy.

With such limited space but the appeal of the shelter’s loose restrictions on entry – they are one of the few that allows couples and pets and also waives the requirement for health papers from the first night – the organization finds itself not only strapped for space and funds but the necessary staff required as well. “If you take more people, you need more social workers, and a social worker works for a salary. Now, we don’t even have enough social workers by the law,” she says. In dorm-sized rooms on the upper floors of the facility, families of four or five happily play and watch television, cook in communal, well-equipped kitchens across the hall, and darn laundry on ubiquitous slatted drying racks, a pleasant scene amidst the darker picture of the shelter’s future come January.

One of the numerous cardboard beds in the store alcoves along Rakoczi street

At present, Nora says the shelter is unsure of what money, if any, will be dispensed by the government toward the facility’s expenses, as it has not yet determined how funds will be dispersed and will not be revealed until January 2013. The same uncertain mist hangs over the heads of Zoltan Aknai and his assistant Erika at Menhely Alapítvány.

Upon the relatively recent change of government – from the twenty-year reign of the left liberal Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) to the current party in power – contracts between the social welfare organizations and government were terminated. Currently, only two contracts exist, one of which is held by Budapesti Módszertani Szociális Központ (BMSZKI) and the other by the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service. While new contracts have yet to be drawn up, the former receives the same amount of funding from the government as before – only they must share a slice of the pie with Maltese Charity Service. “They made it easier for themselves, “ Erika says of the government’s decision to start clean and take decisive action on the streets. “We had a good relationship with [homeless individuals],” she says of the organization’s work with rough sleepers in the subways prior to the 2010 ban. “Every week, we could see what was happening with them, have a chance to tell them where to go, get clothes.”

A rough sleeper outside a Chinese restaurant in Budapest’s 8th district

Citing the introduction of penalties for rough sleeping introduced last year, Erika affirmed that some were fined and others arrested though couldn’t provide an absolute figure of those taken into custody by the police or amounts fined.  While an individual imprisoned for such an offense as rough sleeping would run up a daily room-and-board prison tab of 8,000 forint a day, she claims, the expenses for an individual living on the street receiving a meal provided by a local shelter would amount to approximately 2,500 forint per day. While this discounts other services rendered with the aim of assisting the transition of street living to sustainable flat life, the core problem, she says, is communication between those more experienced and knowledgeable in the social sector and those in power.

What the government also ignores is the folly of opening more shelters and the wasteful funneling of money into existing facilities, according to Boroka Feher, a social worker at BMSZKI. After the transition of the closed-off Communism economy to a more mixed economic model in which widespread decentralization occurred, City Hall sold off a large portion of state-owned housing stock, leaving a meager 4% in the hands of the government; on this small percentage, however, it still collects a hefty 16% on housing tax, or should, as many home owners choose to skirt this exorbitant fee. This, in turn – while unburdening both the leasers and lesees from paying more – makes for a very tenuous situation when renting flats in the city. With no official contract, many renters might find themselves evicted without ample prior notice should they not be able to promptly pay bills or make rent on time.

Homeless beggars at Jaszai Mari Square near Margaret Bridge

Basic subsidies for those receiving aid from the government are around 22,000 forint per month, says Boroka, not even enough to secure the cheapest option for a single-room occupancy in Budapest, running from 30,000 to 35,000 forint a month. On top of that, she continues, bills can run anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 forint. Collecting benefits that are available for government aid receivers becomes an issue tied to renting illegally. As the lesee cannot register an address in order for the landlord to avoid paying the 16% tax, they are thus not qualified to receive any such benefits of that district.

Boroka’s own organization has seen success in offering support housing but say this success is fleeting; even a year to 18 months – depending on the individual’s situation – of support, she says, is not enough for a sustainable living situation for the employed individual, and they can soon find themselves back on the street. On the other hand, the program Pathways has seen great success for placing clients directly into housing, stipulating that one-third of the individual’s income is to be spent on housing costs, while social worker visits are required four to six times a month.

Still, unemployment remains the most important factor for the individual transitioning from street to sustainable living, something in which the government has taken decisive action, Boroka says, but in the wrong direction. While she cites the need for more employment training projects, the ones that are currently in place by the labor office she describes as useless or otherwise not in demand: in the south of Hungary, basket weaving, and, in Budapest, training in becoming a shop assistant or a fork lift driver. Others program offers include computer and IT training, but she says most would-be trainees lack the appropriate attire and hygiene for such office jobs.

An overnight container for individuals too inebriated to safely enter the main facilities at the Hungarian Baptist Aid Shelter

Job applicants also face the stigma of having been recommended through the city’s job centers, which are currently designed and perceived to help only the most unfortunate of cases. In addition to such unemployment woes, Zoli, a resident of the Hungarian Baptist Aid shelter in the eastern part of the tenth district, says that while he can hardly dream to afford renting a place of his own, he has health problems to worry about as well. At 45, his body betrays his age only in the toughened skin on his face, the unnatural sharpness of his cheekbones, and mouthful of few and mostly broken teeth, but his short stature, bone-thin arms, and wide, eager eyes might belong to that of an undernourished adolescent. After discovering his wife with another man, Zoli began what would be his dangerous year and a half living on the streets; upon request, he unabashedly lifts his shirt to display a poorly healed purple scar running the length of his abdomen, a gruesome souvenir from a knife-wielding robber attempting to steal his money as he slept. Having had his lung removed from complications prior to this incident, Zoli must front up 20,000 forint per month to cover healthcare expenses. Using the city’s day warming shelters, soup kitchens, and the Hungarian Baptist Aid shelter as a home base, he manages to get by but is unsure of his next move. Shrugging but with a sad smile, he says he hopes to meet a girl. “But that’s my imagination.”

Peter, a 25-year-old mentor at Hungarian Baptist Aid, says Zoli’s case is not uncommon, citing a leading cause of homelessness to be family problems and divorce. Often, he says, the men leave the house to the wife and children and, once out on the street, turn to drinking or drugs. Out of the approximately 100 staying at the shelter at any given time, he estimates that around 90% are men.

Of the women at the shelter, Kinga, 19, arrived a year ago, also affected by family issues. She receives some financial support from her working mother while working one of two days a week as a government-employed street cleaner, bringing in a meager 3,000 forint per day. She and her boyfriend, Norbi – they met each other at the shelter – would like to sublet an apartment, she hoping to train to become a social worker, and he, to work in the building and construction industry.

In the meantime, as the less fortunate and struggling shelters alike manage with what they have and wait for a better future, winter is noticeably approaching, and the need for funding, more space, and better services may become all the more dire come January and February.

Police patrolling as a homeless man wildly rants at Blaha Lujza Square

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