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Dispatches: Criminalizing Hungary’s Homeless
October 1, 2013

True to their word, the Hungarian government has moved to turn the homeless into criminals. With 245 votes in favor, and only 45 against, the government used its supermajority in parliament yesterday to adopt a law enabling local authorities to make it a criminal offense for the homeless to live in public spaces and dumpster dive.

Municipalities across the country now have a green light to impose fines, community service, and even jail time (if convicted twice within six months) on the homeless. And it’s straight to jail for those convicted of erecting makeshift shelters. This is even worse than the local decree issued by a Budapest district this summer that stipulates jail time for failing to pay fines; this national law allows local governments to throw people in jail just for being homeless. 

The Constitutional Court had struck down, in November 2012, a prior law criminalizing homelessness on the grounds that it violated the right to human dignity. Rather than respecting the court’s decision, the government, through its parliament supermajority, responded by including a provision in the Constitution in March enabling the criminalization of homelessness, a move that showed contempt for the rule of law.

Homeless people were among the hundreds who gathered outside parliament while it was busy passing this terrible law. The homeless people I spoke to wondered why the government was kicking people who are already on the ground. They insisted they didn’t want free housing as everybody seems to think, just the same chances as everyone else to be productive and contribute to society.

Hungarian authorities should tackle homelessness through social policy, not policing. Today, the rights of 30,000 homeless people in the country are at even greater risk.