After a failed referendum, the mayor of Budapest’s 8th district unleashed the force of the law on the homeless. Police units harass those who appear to live on the street, arresting them for violating municipal regulations. In a now-famous document, a citation was issued to an individual for “sitting around on a stone in the company of several of his peers.”
In Hungary, there are more and more elected officials who are uncompromising in pushing their will through no matter how much their constituencies think them mistaken or deluded. Democratic principles are of value to them only in so far that they serve as a source of their legitimacy. In everyday practice, there is an ostentatious display of sheer power in pursuit of the individual will of the leader, which becomes more relentless the more it encounters the opposition of the average citizen. This is not simply a statement about the country as a whole – it is an observation about a newly emerging political culture now discernable on the level of the microcosm as well as in the macrocosm.
Máté Kocsis, the mayor of Budapest’s 8th district (one of the most economically disadvantaged urban neighborhoods of the city) declared a war against the homeless in March of 2011. An edict was published at that time which made dumpster-diving an illegal act punishable by fines (I wrote about the absurdly misplaced priorities of the regulations here). Kocsis’ fight against this most vulnerable layer of society was only an amplification of policies already put in place in Budapest by Budapest’s mayor, István Tarlós (both mayors represent Fidesz, Hungary’s leading party). Tarlós’ law targets homelessness per se: anyone found guilty of “having a life-style of living on the streets” – i.e. not only “being” on the street, but being on the streets for life – is punishable by a fine of up to 50,000 Hungarian forints. Currently that is the equivalent of 225 USD or 167 Euros.
In the 8th district of the city, Máté Kocsis also sought popular support for three of his ideas: for the ban on dumpster-diving, the criminalization of “living on the streets as a form of a lifestyle,” and for deferring the costs associated with their homeless population to the city of Budapest. But at a referendum held on September 25, the mayor could not rally more than 15.25% of those eligible to vote to support his measures. As far as the democratic channels are concerned, they could no longer be utilized to impose the leader’s will.
What Mr. Kocsis could not obtain from the voters however he was able to secure from the representatives on the district council. On Thursday (Oct. 7), the municipal council of Budapest’s 8th district made budgetary provisions for a day-and-night operation against the homeless, an operation already under way since the failed referendum. Funds were approved to cover a 24/7 booking center dedicated exclusively to the processing of those who remain homeless in spite of the regulations. Five newly instituted full-time employees are now assigned to work in this office, and funds from the 8th district must also pay for the additional law enforcement hours required for Mr. Kocsis’s campaign against the most defenseless in his district.
The municipal council also passed a series of regulations that would make it easier to find homeless persons in violation of local laws. Besides the already existing regulations against dumpster-diving and living on the streets, a new ban on panhandling is now in effect, and a selective smoking ban was introduced in a number of public areas under the jurisdiction of the district – the list of these happens to coincide with the parks and squares that the homeless are known to frequent.
Adding the costs of the failed election to the money required for enforcing these new measures, the fight against the homeless in Budapest’s 8th district currently runs at 80 million forints (about 270,000 Euros in a district of 72,000 residents, or 361,000 USD). This, of course, is a considerable folly in itself, a reckless expenditure in a district hard hit by the recession. The moral and the humanitarian values sacrificed in these procedures however are difficult to quantify.
As of today, the authorities in the district processed 290 homeless individuals since the failed election. Since there is no expectation of the payment of fines, the homeless are kept for a few hours, and are released subsequently with a citation. Some of them had been in the processing center as many as four times in the last two weeks.
When they retell their experiences, the homeless concur about the details of the protocol. The police usually approach them when they lie down on a bench or accidentally fall asleep. If they admit to being homeless, they are taken in a car (or, in some versions, in a pickup truck) into the processing center. Thus far, there has been no abuse reported from inside the processing center, except that the same cell sometimes holds as many as 17 people, and that those held in the cell are only allowed to use the bathroom which has an entrance from the street, where they must request to be escorted. Everyone who has seen the inside of this processing center also concurs that, when they are finally released with their citation, the police informally advise them to move to the neighboring 7th or 9th district, “where they would not be subject to harassment.” Activists have seen disabled persons in their wheelchairs taken inside the processing center. So far, those held inside the facility were not offered or allowed access to legal aid.
The advice against “moving” is not necessarily advice one can trust. This is how a social worker describes a raid he witnessed in the neighboring 7th district:
“Two weeks ago, I found four public area inspectors harassing a man sleeping underneath the shopping windows of the old Therese Town Textile House. In answer to my question about the authority for their actions, they said they were enforcing the regulations of István Tarlós [the mayor of Budapest]. I placed myself in between them and the man deep in sleep, and asked them to tell me what the regulation says – what is the content of the regulation they are acting upon? They could not answer, and one of them stepped next to the man asleep and started kicking him. “Why are you doing this,” I asked in a voice somewhat raised, which made them step further away. “Look sir, these are the orders of the mayor,” the oldest of them said. They then moved on. A few minutes later they were issuing citations for illegally parked cars in a neighboring street.”
The “officers” in this incident were under the police in rank – as “public area inspectors,” they are usually only tasked with enforcing traffic regulations. In the 8th district, official law enforcement conducts the raids. Some stipulate that there might be a quota of citations to be issued by law enforcement every day – recently, this number was reliably between 20 to 30 a day.
2000 homeless persons are registered today in Budapest’s 8th district, but the district only keeps 830 beds available to them in homeless shelters. Social workers have documentation that most of these facilities are bug-infested and unsafe. In fact, many of those who have already been through the processing center say they would prefer the harassment of the police to being robbed or hurt in one of the city’s homeless facilities.
The homeless problem in Budapest’s 8th district leads back to a development project that boasts of being the “grandest urban development program of Eastern Europe.” The building of Corvin district, which houses residential units as well as offices and a mall required clearing a 22 hectare (54 acre) area that used to house some of the poorest urban population of the city. The residents were offered a lump sum payment if they agreed to move out of their homes. Many among those who took the monetary settlement were unable to find affordable housing since.
While it costs 8000 Hungarian forints to lock a person into a jail cell for a day, and 3000 forint per bed to maintain the uninhabitable shelters of the district, subsidizing the rent of those without a residence could be secured by spending as little as 1000 forint a day. While the mayor is so preoccupied with the crime of homelessness, 500 apartments owned and managed by the district council are without occupants.
Not that figures or money matter too much in this case. In a culture in which elected officers of democratic institutions habitually pursue criminal proceedings in order to conceal their inability to develop policy solutions to real problems, neither the dictates of reason nor feelings of compassion can make an impact on the public discourse, be that about homelessness or any of the other socioeconomic problems in Hungary. Those opposed to the mayor’s policies are therefore testing the discriminatory aspects of the new regulations: since violating the mayor’s regulations while appropriately dressed and well-shaven seems to be without any consequences, it is not too difficult to see that the police and the mayors apply the force of the law not against violations, but against a group of people already down on their luck and defenseless against the arbitrariness of the powerful.