On 17 October, The City is for All (AVM) held a major demonstration against a government proposal to impose a €500 fine or imprisonment on people who are found „residing in public places” twice over the course of 6 months. According to AVM, the proposal is unconstitutional and inhumane, since it punishes homeless people for not having appropriate housing.
A whole series of repressive measures against homeless people preceded the proposal in the past year. In December 2010 the Ministry of Interior introduced legal amendments that made it possible for local mayors to punish „residing in public places”. Istvan Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest did not wait long to come up with an order that forbade „residing in public places” in the capital. The fine imposed by the local ordinance was €180. Despite the fact that the ombudsperson found the local ordinance unconstitutional, district mayor Máté Kocsis started to enforce it vehemently in the 8th district of Budapest, arresting hundreds of homeless people in the course of a few weeks in October, 2011. Clearly, Kocsis’s aim was to harass homeless people until they leave his district. Kocsis was also among the signatories to the aforementioned proposal to imprison homeless people, which was discussed by the Parliament on October 17.
500-1000 people attended the Monday demonstration, which was also closely followed by Hungarian and international media. The participants were quite diverse proving that the criminalization of homelessness is an issue that concerns all, not only homeless people. The demonstration started with a young Hungarian poet reading out her piece inspired by the repressive anti-homeless measures of the past months. This was followed by a performance that demonstrated the consequences of the new criminalization proposal if it enters into law. Hundreds of participants lay down on the ground in front of the Parliament, while activists dressed as representatives of the police tried to take them to jail.
After the spectacular performance, Csaba Papp, a homeless member of The City is for All posed some yet unanswered questions: „We have already been swept out of the inner city, the underground stations, the forests and the 8th district. Do they want to sweep us out of the country? Where can we run?” He also pointed out that Kocsis was commissioned „rapporteur on the homeless” by the ruling party Fidesz a few days before, which basically means that the very person who wants to put homeless people into jail will have a major impact on all the government policies regarding homelessness. „We all know that homelessness is not a criminal issue but the manifestation of extreme poverty, and the solution requires effective government policies” – stated Papp.
Attila „Steve” Kopiás, an activist who had engaged in a series of provocative civil actions over the past weeks, highlighted the importance of grassroots organizing in his speech. „The current regime wants us to believe that we will feel better messing with those who are the most vulnerable” – he said. „They want us to believe that people live on the streets because there is not enough housing. That poverty and suffering are natural and unavoidable. But these are all lies.”
Kopiás was followed by Adrienn Szigeti, a member of AVM who has experienced homelessness. She presented the group’s policy recommendations regarding homelessness. „The government needs to fight poverty, not poor people. This can be done by increasing employment rates, securing decent wages and pensions, introducing a constitutional right to housing, radically increasing housing subsidies and sustaining a salient network of social housing.”
Péter Kónya, founder of the recently formed Solidarity Movement shared with the crowd the moving moment when a group of homeless people brought them cookies and a bag of coins to contribute to their latest union demonstration. He pointed out that a community can function properly only if its members do not forget about one another and help those in need.
The criminalization of homelessness is on the rise in Hungary. The proposed law to imprison homeless people is expected to be passed by the Parliament where the ruling party has two-thirds majority. In December, 2011, the government is going to open three new shelters in Budapest that will partly function as detention centers for those found „residing in public spaces.” At the same time, a number of forced evictions took place in the 14th district of Budapest where homeless people used to live in self-made huts for years. No appropriate alternatives have been offered to the evictees. The City is for All continues to struggle for affordable, safe and healthy housing for all and calls on all homeless citizens and allies to support our efforts.