28 protesters were arrested on November 11 after another attempt by activists to impede passage of a bill in the Hungarian parliament that would criminalize homelessness in Hungary. The bill currently under consideration would increase the fine for homelessness from 50,000 to 150,000 HUF (480 euros or 655 USD) in the case of repeat offenses.The sit-in took place in the offices of Máté Kocsis, mayor of Budapest’s 8th district. These pictures describe the scene better than words:
The signs in the hands of the demonstrators say “Börtön helyett lakhatást” (Habitat instead of prison) and “A szegények nem bűnözők” (The poor are not criminals).
The peaceful act of civil disobedience is only the latest in the line of other means of protest to oppose legislation against homelessness. Here are the most important developments of the story, and links to further information:
1. Excerpted from the The City is for All, a grassroots group fighting for the right to housing in Hungary:
“It all started in December 2010, when the Interior Ministry effected legal amendments that made it possible for local mayors to punish people for ‘residing in public places’. István Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest did not wait long to come up with an ordinance that makes ‘residing in public places’ illegal. The fine imposed is €180. In the meantime, Máté Kocsis, mayor of the 8th district forbade rummaging through garbage in the 8th district.
2. Mayor Kocsis next move was to then decided to step up law enforcement in his district. I wrote about this in detail in early October:
The outcome of this shameful campaign: Mr. Kocsis was appointed to develop the government’s nation-wide homeless policy.
3. Already at this time, the ombudsman of the Hungarian parliament sided with “The City is for All” and determined “unacceptable” and unconstitutional the regulations against homelessness that are still under enforcement in Budapest, and under discussion in the Hungarian parliament.
4. The crackdown on homelessness targeted things homeless people tend to do – such as sleeping on benches, panhandling, dumpster diving, living on the streets or storing possessions needed for living on the streets. This was thinly masked discrimination against those who did not have a roof ahead their head, merely a means to the end of putting the homeless behind bars (or into the shelters which are neither available in adequate numbers, nor are safe or sanitary enough to stay in). This could not have been better demonstrated than in the well-staged action of a citizen blogger pretending to be homeless.
Marietta Le reports about the arrest of an activist dressed as if he were homeless by 8 policemen on Global Voices Online:
Steve (the blogger/activist who demonstrated the double standard inherent in the anti-homeless legislation) could only be charged with “resisting arrest” – since he was not guilty of the main crime under criminalization, homelessness. The next day, he tried sleeping on the bench and begging for money – in a suit this time around – but the police decided not to intervene. See more on this phase of the protests against the police crackdown on the homeless of the 8th district:
5. On October 17, 500-1000 demonstrators tried to draw the public’s attention to the inhumane treatment of the homeless – as the Hungarian parliament was already considering hiking, rather than relaxing, the criminal penalties for being homeless. This is the English-language report on the event by the group “The City is For All”:
6. During the same week, the focus of the battle moved into a suburb of Budapest. The 8th district is an inner urban district, where every effort has been made to push the homeless to the “green zones.” Indeed, many homeless live in the woods of the outer districts of Budapest, especially during favorable weather conditions: a police count put their numbers to appr. 11oo (216 women, 9 children, 900 men, who also keep 420 household animals)
One of the reasons why this is a popular option is because it allows families to stay together (shelter living forces couples – not to mention children – to be separated). The demolition, on October 18, of the temporary shelters drawn up in Zugló, Budapest’s 14th district, was therefore esepcially heart-breaking – see the eye-witness reporting here:
7. In the next phase of the persecution of homelessness, social workers become indicted for taking a stance. On November 4, a three year suspended sentence was passed down by the Pest Central District Court for Norbert Ferencz, a social worker who had urged others, in another performance-style protest in March 2011, to reach into trash-cans in protest of the 8th district’s prohibition. Ferencz was found guilty of “instigating to dumpster dive.”
Social workers are expected to fight for legislation on behalf of the disadvantaged segments of the population; this in fact is an important part of their professional code. In Hungary, however, social workers are not only under threat of retaliation against their public participation – they are in a fight for preserving the bare minimum of services of care.
The Hungarian government’s 2012 budget proposes a 40% cut on social services, including the treatment of the elderly, the disabled and the mentally ill. According to those working in the profession, even without the cuts they are merely able to hold down the task of crisis management. In the new budget, there will be fewer social workers left for a workload continually on the increase. The government decided to cut down social services even though managing social problems by social work is cheaper than by placement in the hospital (or, in the case of the homeless, in jail).
8. The story thus leads up to the protest on Friday, November 11, in and outside of the municipal offices of Budapest’s 8th district.
In the morning, the performance-style protest took place as planned outside the 8th district offices: the demonstrators created a jail-cell in front of the office building.
The sit-in in fact was a break-away action by approximately 30 of the demonstrators, homeless individuals as well as activists (Budapest’s 8th district nevertheless plans to sue The City is for All to be compensated for the disruption).
Since the offices were open for clients, the demonstrators entered the building and sit down in the office of the mayor and on the corridors. From 12:30 to approximately 3 p.m, the protesters were removed one by one, most of them still sitting, or planking, while being carried by the policemen.
Another protest was held in solidarity with those arrested outside the local police station to welcome the protesters on their release. By 7 p.m., approximately 200 protesters gathered to welcome them on their release. The demonstrators left the police station with tickets for 30,000 HUF for first-time, and 50,000 HUF for repeat offenders (96 and 160 euros/131 and 218 USD). You can read the English-language summary of the protest by The City is for All here:
More pictures can be found on the blog “Kettős Mérce”:
Important addendum: One of the activists arrested clarified that the bill currently under consideration in the Hungarian parliament would not only increase the fine for “repeat” homelessness. It open us the road to jailing homeless individuals who are not willing to move into the few very poorly maintained shelters (which are already at full capacity).
In the current system, the fine is 50,000 HUF. Alternatively, one may “pay” in the form of public work, for 1,000 HUF/day (way below minimum wage). If someone refuses to pay and to work, the punishment is served in jail.
In the new system, after the first violation repeat offenders can be charged as much as 150,000 HUF. Instead of the higher penalty, however, the municipality now has the right to send the repeat offender straight to prison, for up to 60 days. The new bill would give authorization to mayors like Máté Kocsis to lock away the homeless in punishment of the mere fact that they are homeless.