Hungary’s constitution now says sleeping on the streets is a crime.
The new provision, which went into effect Monday, bans “habitual residence in a public space” and gives police the authority to remove rough sleepers from the streets and confiscate their belongings.
Under amended Article 22 of the revised constitution, homeless people who refuse to go to shelters will be forced to participate in public work programs, which they can avoid only by paying a fine. If they are unable to pay those fines, they will face time in prison.
The minister of state for social affairs and inclusion, Attila Fülöp, said Saturday that the law “serves the interest of society as a whole” and that there were “sufficient places in the institutions that provide care for the homeless.”
But critics say the law is part of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s latest crackdown on some of the country’s most vulnerable people.
When the legislation was first passed in parliament in June, the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, Leilani Farha, said it raised “concerns of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment against homeless people and persons without housing,” and said the government “has treated those without homes as criminals.”
Farha added that there were insufficient emergency shelter spaces to accommodate Hungary’s homeless population, estimated at more than 10,000 people.
According to a recent survey by the FEANTSA, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless, out of 10,206 homeless people surveyed in 2016, around a third were sleeping rough.
Some homeless people say they prefer to sleep on the street over a space in one of the country’s homeless shelters, citing overcrowding, lack of quality services and accessibility issues as driving factors, according to data provided to FEANSTA by Hungarian social workers and nongovernmental organizations who work with the homeless.
Those workers say the law effectively criminalizes homelessness and underscores their ability to establish trust with their clients and to assist with long-term solutions. Instead, they will be forced to implement the government’s policy of policing homeless people off the street.
In a letter to Hungary’s Vice President Frans Timmermans Monday, FEANTSA Director Freek Spinnewijn said:
“While Orbán’s regime campaigns against non-governmental organizations to discourage them from voicing their discontent, organizations supporting homeless people and homeless providers with street social workers in Hungary will be required to become an actor in the actual implementation of the criminal act.”
“This conflicts with their social work ethos which is based on voluntary acceptance of assistance by the clients. Social workers should not be forced to abandon their role as promoters of the social integration of vulnerable citizens. Their responsibilities should be kept clear as providers, not as enforcers of the criminal act.”
This is not the first time that the Hungarian government has used the law to crack down on the homeless.
In 2013, the government first adopted a law that made sleeping in a public place a criminal offense and allowed for police to fine those who do so. That 2013 law passed after a law that criminalized homelessness was reversed by Hungary’s Constitutional Court on the ground that it violated the right to human dignity in 2012.
Hungary’s government has said that there are currently 19,000 shelter places for the homeless and that the country will spend 9.1 billion Hungarian forints (approximately $32.6 million) on “helping the needy” this year.