The warm autumn has masked the fact that the time which social workers consider as the start of the winter homeless crisis period is only a month away.
United Nations’ estimates are that 8,000 people live on the streets of Budapest and another 22,000 nationwide. The numbers prove that homelessness is not something politicians can avoid, and a recent conference looked at the problem.
The Friedrich Ebert Foundation together with Political Capital Policy Research and Consulting Institute, numerous sociologists, social workers and politicians tried to find the answers to the most urgent questions.
Péter Krekó, the director of Political Capital, said that while homeless people are often treated as scapegoats in today’s politics, their perception by society is quite different. He said the majority of society is much more positive and helpful towards them than the behaviour of some leading politicians would suggest.
His Political Capital colleague, Attila Juhász, supported this view with excerpts from a recent study. More than 50% of the respondents would rather help than punish. “We have to make a differentiation between homeless people, people who do not have a flat and people who do not have a home, in order to be able to understand the problem,” Juhász said.
Péter Győri from Menhely Alapítvány (Shelter Foundation), the largest organisation helping homeless in Budapest, agreed: not having an apartment does not necessarily mean that someone becomes homeless but it is a fundamental part of the problem, and thereby it belongs to the solution as well.
Győri said: “Since the political turn there is virtually no social housing, so whoever gets in trouble paying the rent or the instalments of the loan does not really have alternatives.” It was a fact that there were many people in Budapest today who were employed but they still had to make a choice: food or rent?
To call attention to the dramatic shortage in affordable housing, about 60 activists and supporters of A Város Mindenkié (The city belongs to everyone), have occupied an empty former private sanatorium in District VI. The building has been owned by an offshore company for many years. “There could be some social housing created here, which is so urgently needed,” the group argues.
Győri said politics has the main responsibility: “But here we are facing another round of municipal elections without the candidates having any plan for the housing problem.” It was usual that the district and city leaderships blamed each other without looking for a solution together. And this was why accommodation for homeless people was full virtually all year. Győri said he is sure that the districts would be able to provide affordable housing.
Endre Hann of research organisation Medián added: “Seven percent of Hungarian society has a friend or a family member who is living on the street.”
These are issues that should have been addressed in the second part of the conference, but sadly the politicians present used the opportunity instead to present themselves in a positive light and their opponents in a negative light. Municipal elections will be held this Sunday.
Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Political Capital invited Zoltán Bodnár from the Hungarian Liberal Party; Péter Juhász, the founder of Milla, who is the candidate from the Together-Dialogue Party for District V; Ágnes Kunhalmi, president of the Hungarian Socialist Party in Budapest; Ágnes Osztolykán from green party LMP; and the Budapest mayor candidate of the far-right party Jobbik, Gábor Staudt.
Beside proposing only too general solutions (“There must be more affordable housing made available, with costs taken over by the state from the homeless”: Juhász) and prevention measures (“It’s cheaper to save a family that could not afford its rent for the last three months than to get the same family out of the trap of homelessness”: Kúnhalmi), the participants mostly only talked past each other.
There was no real discussion between the politicians. Only Osztolykán opposed Staudt when he opined that “the majority of homeless people want to improve their situation, but there is a smaller renitent part who simply do not want to be helped”. For them, Staudt would advise “hard treatment”.
Osztolykán, a political scientist, responded in a very clear way: “When someone says ‘He does not want to be helped’ it makes me furious.” She pointed out, to applause, that the homeless problem is a very complex issue that cannot be solved by keywords.
Unfortunately this was the only useful contribution from the politicians participating. Instead of discussing with each other and the many professionals present how the growing problem might be solved, they were campaigning. It appears they are unwilling to act.
The strategy of “if I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist”, as shown by the criminalisation of homelessness in the city centre, will claim human lives again this winter.