2014 Grateful 26

‘If we don’t push the homeless people out, we will end up being pushed out by them.’ This quotation, attributed to the Mayor of Budapest’s VIII district, Máté Kocsis (the district in which I live), is the basis for an art installation in Budapest by Finnish artist, Jani Leinonen.


For three weeks, Leinonen’s fake fast food restaurant – Hunger King – has highlighted the government’s treatment of the homeless in the capital. It gave out burger boxes to homeless people, filled with 3400 forints (€11, £7, $15) which amounts to the daily minimum wage. Those who had money got to use the red carpet and buy pieces of art. Quite a heady juxtaposition of the poverty and wealth that divides Budapest and many cities around the world.



The menu was cleverly designed to showcase the differences in what the government offers to rich and poor. It’s nothing I didn’t know already, but seeing it portrayed as a fast-food menu struck home. It made it all the more real. What exactly that’s indicative of, I’m not quite sure – perhaps a reality that only becomes real when transmitted in advertising slogans and 140-character tweets? I hope not.

The specials board gave pause for thought. Leinonen writes that the Hungarian economy is worse today that it was in socialist times with 12% of the population living below the poverty line. More than 1 million cannot afford to heat their homes, and in winter, the number of cold-related deaths is 10 times higher than in other developed countries. What does this say about those of us living here, about the government elect?


He talks of parasites, or more particularly of those who label the homeless as parasites who feed off the system. And he points out that a really successful parasite is one that feeds off the host without the host knowing. The host doesn’t even know that the parasite is there. Take a walk down practically any street in the country’s capital  and you’ll see evidence of homelessness, be it mattresses in doorways or  inert shoeless bodies sleeping in an underpass or on a park bench. The homeless are far from being parasites.


On another wall, Leinonen has taken signs written by homeless people and framed them. I was reminded of one I’d seen in London last week – Parents murdered by ninjas; need money for karate lessons – but these I couldn’t see the humour in, most likely because the humour wasn’t there. I can’t in my wildest dreams begin to imagine what life would be like without a key to my front door.

This week, finally back in Budapest after a lengthy absence, I’m grateful that I have a bed to sleep in each night. I’m grateful that I have a home here in the VIIIth, and not only here, but in many homes around the world in which I’m always welcome. I’m grateful, too, for artists like Jani Leinonen, who force us to look at reality and question the part we play in it.

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5 Responses

  1. People like me, living in the rural depths of the Dunántúl, only see homelessness when we go to Budapest. Our routine reality is therefore quite different from yours in the capital. Homelessness is a very complex problem with a surprising range of causes, and many of those affected have indeed been hard done by one way or another and deserve sympathy. But when you speak of ‘questioning the part we play in it’ I wonder quite what is meant. I have not rendered anyone homeless, and as a private individual the great problem is beyond my power to abate, let alone remedy: am I to regard this as a lamentable personal shortcoming? Homelessness is not a modern invention, but its urbanisation is, which, like its scale today, is a macro-economic phenomenon.

    1. Consider ten million termites chewing on a wood house. In the mind of each termite is the assured belief that their little individual action could not possible cause any damage to the house. Yet the house falls down much to the shock of each individual termite.

      This is a form of attributional bias; mistaking who or what is responsible for some outcome. As well as selective perception.

      We indeed all have an affect, even if we cognitively are not aware of it or admit it. Individual contribution to an issue may be small, or even indirect, but it can add up at a societal level into a great deal of political or social inertia. Not being aware of your indirect causality does not mean you are not contributing either positively or negatively to an issue.

      And you certainly can contribute to abate homelessness. There are many NGOs and churches that work to help people out of be homeless, or help them from becoming homeless in the first place. You can choose to contribute, fiscally or your free time, to such organisations if you care to, and thus help abate this issue. Or not. That is, it is a matter of your free will to help or not. But don’t say you can’t abate, because you can help. If you don’t want to that is fine, but that is an different issue. I know more than one person who hit hard times and received often just one time assistance, and that little bit of help kept them from becoming homeless. So, yes, everyone can make a difference. Every little bit helps.

      We all touch and affect others in ways we may not be aware of. Even writing a comment at a blog can affect others. Both negative and positive external content that others read can affect them. Often without them even being aware of it. Cross references emotional contagion.

      1. A pretty sermon! But your your palliative measures, however commendable, are treatment for the symptoms rather than the disease.

    2. Me neither Bernard – don’t think I have even been the cause of putting someone out on the street. I was referring to the part we plan in the castigation of the homeless, the stigmatisation, the lack of acknowledgement.

      1. Quite so, but I think that the real trouble lies in the urbanisation of the problem. All in one place makes a terrible mess and a huge headache for the authorities – who, after all, are in charge. The solution by individual’s mite doesn’t solve any basic problem, rather facilitates its continuance. And a propos, I hate to see people using pseudonyms in your blog – are they ashamed of their names?

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