Homelessness is a violation of Hungary’s constitution. An October 2018 amendment made it illegal to sleep rough in the vicinity of cultural and other important sites, effectively prohibiting homelessness in large parts of Budapest.

The Petty Crime Law criminalised sleeping rough on the streets. Homeless who refuse to go to shelters face compulsory enrolment in a work programme or jail, and they may also have their belongings confiscated.

Now the European Commission, in its European Semester country report, has expressed disapproval of how the Hungarian government is treating the homeless.

Hungary’s homeless are a visible part of Budapest’s cityscape, sleeping in parks and underpasses.

But by criminalising homelessness, those who sleep rough on the streets are being forced to hide from authorities. This is making it harder to get help to them.

Vera Kovacs, who works at the Hungary-based NGO From Streets to Home Association, told Euronews in December she fears it will lead to more people freezing to death.

Did the homeless disappear?

The government introduced the Petty Crime Law aiming to provide proper living conditions for the homeless and has set money to help them.

Hungary Today online noted in October that the government is setting aside a reserve fund of 300m forints (€925,000) for homeless provisions such as ensuring the operations of all-day shelters and 24-hour aid for the needy.

But many homeless people say the conditions at the city’s shelters are deplorable and they prefer to remain on the street.

Campaigners also note that Hungary has three times as many homeless people than places at shelters.

Gábor Iványi, a Methodist priest who runs homeless shelters in Budapest’s eighth district, said the number of beds at shelters in the city was inadequate. One of his shelters has dozens of simple metal bed-frames crammed into each room. In winter, when the 130-bed shelter takes in up to 300 people on some nights, yoga mats are spread on the floor.

Meanwhile, charity workers say before homelessness was outlawed they knew where to find and check on people.

Charity workers say before homelessness was outlawed they knew where to find and check on people

Kovacs said the law has seen a large number of homeless people leave central areas of Budapest — where temperatures drop to as low as -10°C in winter — and live in forests on the edge of Hungary’s capital.

“We believe it’s very dangerous for homeless people that they feel that they need to hide, especially when it’s this cold,” she said.

Orbán needs a new ‘threat’

As reported by The Guardian in October 2018, activists fear the move could be the start of a political campaign against homeless people by the government of Viktor Orbán, which has previously focused heavily on the apparent threat posed by refugees and migrants.

Ahead of the European Elections in May, Orbán hardens his rhetoric enriching the list of the potential ‘dangers’ that threat Hungary: migrants, Muslims, Jews, Roma, homelessness and poverty in general

“The government has realised they can’t play the migrant card endlessly because there are obviously no migrants in the country. Migration issues can still be useful for national campaigns but for local issues they need a new scapegoat,” said the Methodist priest Gábor Iványi.

“Criminalisation of homeless people does not work,” Freek Spinnewijn, director of the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA), said in December.

“You start by giving them a fine. They can’t pay. You give them another fine because they cannot pay the fine. In the end, they end up in prison. You cannot put them in prison for life so they will come out and probably be worse than when they went in. It’s a totally vicious circle.”

Ahead of the European Elections in May, Orbán is hardening his rhetoric by enriching the list of potential ‘dangers’ that threaten Hungary: migrants, Muslims, Jews, Roma, homelessness and poverty in general.

But his authoritarian regime is repeatedly accused of corruption and EU funds fraud and his proxies are accused of non-transparent enrichment.

After attacking the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker last week it became clear that Orbán’s ambition to remain in power has no limits.