‘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.