Going back for seconds

Passing through Blaha Lujza tér on my way to have lunch at Jelen, I noticed that the Hare Krishna’s food line had moved from the square itself to just around the corner onto Márkus Emilia utca. Three thoughts hit me in quick succession: the first, a brief ‘how sad’; the second, a short invocation – there but for the grace of God go I; and the third, most telling, the material recognition of the aesthetic improvement to Blaha Lujza tér. Had I been on my own when the magnitude of this final thought hit me, I’d probably have launched headlong into a bout of severe self-loathing at such callousness, but I had company and I was hungry.

The great unwanted

Some days later, I read a piece in the Budapest Times about the city’s homeless – the Great Unwanted – and realised that this move around the corner was a prelude to a second move out to Teleki László Tér, near Kerepesi cemetery. Again, three thoughts flashed into my mind:  the irony of moving one literal step closer to the grave; a vague recollection from my flat-hunting days of Teleki tér not exactly being a choice neighbourhood; and a somewhat self-righteous disgust at the City’s attempt to sweep the problem under the carpet. But it wasn’t my problem. I had other things to worry about: appointments to fix, bills to pay, clients to meet…

The grand delusion

Then just last week, I found myself visiting the Hare Krishnas in Csillaghegy. As I walked across the road from the local Catholic church to the temple, I had a strange sense of crossing a great divide – something far wider than the 20 feet or so of tarmac that separates the two. I was nervous. I was brought up Irish Catholic and had survived convent school with all my prejudices intact. Back in 1980s Ireland, this new-fangled religion that made grown men dress in orange, shave their heads, and spend their days singing in the streets while banging on drums had met with walls of suspicion and fear that Ireland’s young and impressionable might be caught up in the madness and disappear, never to be seen again. It’s funny what you remember and how you remember it. Even thirty years later, some miniscule part of me wondered fleetingly if I’d make that hév back to Budapest. A little nervously, I ventured inside, completely unprepared to have all my delusions shattered.

The global phenomenon

ISKCON (the International Society for Krisha Consciousness) is just one month older than me. In its lifetime, it has developed into a global confederation of some 250,000 devotees. That surprised me. When compared to other religions, it’s not a big number – and yet the effect that just one of the ISKCON programmes is having worldwide, would blow the lid off any religious Richter scale.

In 1972, looking out a window in Mayapur, a small village near Calcutta, His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada saw a group of children fighting with street dogs over scraps of food. His reaction? The promise that no one within ten miles of a Krishna centre would go hungry. And so began the Food for Life programme, which recognised that starvation isn’t a problem of supply, but rather of fair distribution. Each day, this programme alone feeds over 800,000 people worldwide.  Ételt az életért began in Budapest in 1989, with the occasional distribution of vegetarian food during Christian holidays. In 2001, now officially registered as a non-profit organization, it took up residence in Blaha Lujza tér. From the back of a van, devotees distribute as many as 500 hot meals most days of the week with a further 500 to needy families near the Budapest temple. That’s 1000 meals a day from produce grown on their farm and food donated by the public. Ten years ago, most of their clientele may well have been homeless; today, many have homes to go to but are unemployed, surviving on a meagre pension, or victims of the foreign-currency mortgage fiasco. All are ordinary people, just like me.

The grave truth

The right to human dignity is enshrined in the new Hungarian constitution.  But where’s the dignity in having to stand in line for some hot food? Where’s the dignity in having to parade your poverty in front of strangers? Where’s the dignity in being ignored by so many and helped by so few? Rather than simply relocate the problem, wouldn’t the dignity of the homeless and the needy be better served by providing the Food for Life programme with a permanent home? Surely there’s an unoccupied building, centrally located, that could be put to better use? Sprucing up Blaha Lujza tér is one thing; relocating the in-your-face evidence of the City’s failure to preserve the dignity of its poor is another.

My grandmothers will be turning in their graves as they read this. Not only did I survive my first encounter with the Hare Krishnas, I plan on going back for seconds.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 June 2011

7 replies
  1. Peter
    Peter says:

    A brave and timely article, I hope that it stimulates the desired and sounds like
    much needed result.

    Well done.

    Reply
  2. Tom
    Tom says:

    My only comment is that you might simplify a bit the problem with homeless people, first there is actually less homeless people in Budapest than many big western capitals, they just have been very visible in the past (whereas in other countries they have been relocated long time ago). Secondly being involved for years in different kind of organisations, helping homeless people either in Hungary or other countries is very difficult, as many people really don’t want to be helped. Actually most of them would be given a place to stay but quite a few of them are not willing to accept those. There is no difference between the approach here than let’s say Poland, Scandinavia etc where you can see also homeless people. Why there are homeless people even in Sweden and Finland which are most likely most progressive and caring nations in the world? One of the issues is in all places i know of, the condition for having a shelter and place to stay is that you are at least some extent willing to comply to basic rules (especially about use of alcohol, drugs, showering yourself etc). Lot of the people just don’t want to do it or would require extensive amount of medical and mental treatment. For some of that it is fact that there is limited amount of money available. The problem is pretty complex and most likely cannot ever be solved but improvements can be done.

    On the other hand, i believe Budapest, like most western european cities has right to clean up its streets. Just try to sleep in the street corners in Stockholm or Helsinki, police will take you away in a minute…

    Reply
    • Mary
      Mary says:

      Many people don’t want to be helped, Tom, but there are some who do and for their sake the plight of the many has to be taken on board by our leaders (and by ourselves). Numbers o fhomeless are increasing – and they shouldn’t be. Society is doing something wrong. And yes, the situation is very complex – and probably won’t be fixed in my lifetime. Cleaning up streets shouldn’t simply mean relocating the problem… Hats off ot the Hark Krishna’s though for their Food for Life programme – that is making a difference.

      Reply
  3. Tom
    Tom says:

    You are actually talking about two different kind of problems (at least). The number of homeless people is increasing accross the whole western europe, it is even more significant in some more affluent countries, just because of the law enforcement it might not be so visible than here. One of the main reason is of course that there is no borders nowadays in Schengen area and that has increased mobility of the people – and created a new business for crimnals trafficing e.g. Roma people from Romania or Bulgaria to Scandinavia. However, beside the legal issue that open borders does not mean right to move to othe country without means to support you, there is organized crime behind all of this. Logically it is very difficult to see how in most western european countries where the population is not growing or indeed decreasing there would be increase of homeless people.

    The situation is getting so difficult in some nothern european countries that they have decided that they give help, food or shelter only for their own citizens.

    Obviously there are some people who due to difficult economical situation in some countries (like Hungary and several others) have lost their jobs, possibly consequently homes etc but those numbers in reality are pretty minimal. Bigggest part of increase of homeless people in western europe is due to people moving around.

    Also in Hungary you don’t need to be homeless if you don’t want, government can provide you place to stay (at least for their own homeless people) if they comply to those rules. The problematic people are those who would need significant medical treatment to get back to life. It is not possibles to force people to change their lives and go to treatment but of course that is work that should be done.

    On the other hand, i cannot believe that any good is done without openly looking the real reasons and circumstances in being homeless or becoming marginal member of the society. I also believe that the only sustainable way is to do that in a way that is inline with the values and acceptance of majority of the society, otherwise the work will just become more difficult and less popular. However idealistic it would be e.g. to house homeless people in the areas where there are lot of middle class families, it just creates totally unnecessary tension and will not help to treat the homeless themselves. I have seen cases in some countries where they wanted to create a place for homeless for upper middle class society, next to kinder garden. Now the result was just that the project was delayed for couple of years, did not eventually ever get build and turned all those people who has been even supporting organisations i was involved against the whole idea. End result was couple of years lost, significant negative reaction in the whole homeless populationn and much more difficult opportunties to help.

    I mjght have become cynical over the years, but i don’t care about political ideologies or fantacies as i rather help the people in need but the same time we need to be intellectually honest to recognize the real reasons, consequences, opportunties and be pragmatic instead of idealists in solving this issue.

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] was once again enthralled by the sense of peace he radiates. Whatever I might or might not think of the doctrine of Krishna Consciousness, I thoroughly enjoy our conversations and always end up leaving with more than I came with. He […]

  2. […] I needed to mentor a new starter as part of my ACG and he seemed ideal. He invited me to visit the temple at Csillaghegy. And so began our friendship. I was at the TM meeting because of WB and met WB through ESz and met […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Talk to me...