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Dispatches: Hungary’s War on the Homeless
September 3, 2013

A ban on dumpster diving. Fines for picking up discarded items in the streets. Proposals for homeless-free zones. Hungary’s ‘war on the homeless’ appears to be picking up steam.

Now that Hungary’s constitution allows for the criminalization of the homeless, it was only a matter of time before a local government banned them from public areas. This summer a district in Budapest did just that, issuing a decree prohibiting “residential habitation” (living in public places), banning “dumpster-diving,” and taking unwanted items left on the streets for disposal by the authorities. Offenders face fines of up to 150,000 Hungarian forints (US$655), community service or even jail sentences for repeated violations. In other words, homeless people with nowhere else to go are now targeted as criminals for being poor.

The local decree is the latest in a campaign against homeless people which began in 2010, including a national law criminalizing homelessness adopted in April 2012. In November 2012, the constitutional court struck down the law on the grounds that it violated the constitutional right to human dignity. But rather than respect the ruling, the government used its supermajority in parliament in March to amend the constitution to include a provision enabling the criminalization of homelessness. The sidestepping of its own constitutional court speaks volumes of the Hungarian government’s contempt for the rule of law and its handling of social issues.   

As a further blow, the lord mayor of the city of Budapest in late August announced that the city is planning a proposal to ban homeless people from public areas all over the city. That means that areas in any of the 22 districts of Budapest owned by the city will literally be off-limits for homeless people. Instead of taking their human rights obligations seriously by protecting the rights of vulnerable people without housing, the authorities are now putting Budapest’s approximately 8,000 homeless population at serious risk of becoming criminals.