I didn’t get to see the Pope when he was in Budapest recently, but I was delighted to read that he’d revisited St István’s letter to his son from the eleventh century (knowns as the Admonitions) and had spoken so frequently about helping others, as Christians.
I didn’t see the recent coronation of King Charles either, but I took note when Fr Frank Hegedűs quoted part of the King’s Christmas message in a recent Anglican Church newsletter: “So, whatever faith you have, or whether you have none, it is in this life-giving light, and with the true humility that lies in our service to others, that I believe we can find hope for the future.”
Service to others. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
What you give determines what you get. It’s not rocket science. If you don’t give your time to help others, you can hardly be surprised if no one offers help when you need it. I’m a firm believer in tithing, giving 10% of what you earn, pre-tax, to those in need. Originally, tithing was for the church but as I’ve been accused of being a pick-and-mix Catholic, I’ve modified it in my case. I give to small, village churches rather than big, tourist-trodden city ones or indeed the church as an institution and I mainly favour organisations that are doing something tangible to make this world a better place.
I first heard of Utcáról Lakásba Egyesület (ULE; From Streets to Homes Association) a couple of years ago, when the Budapest Exiles rugby club was doing burpees to raise funds for an apartment ULE was renovating to house a homeless couple. I was taken by the active volunteer element and the sense of community spirit that the foundation promotes. I must have donated back then because I’ve been on their email list ever since.
I don’t hear from them often (which is a blessing in itself; they seem to have gotten a handle on the optimum amount of communication needed – I wish other organisations I support(ed) would learn from them). When I do get an email, it’s usually worth taking the time to click the ‘translate message’ button and see what they’re up to.
Their self-imposed mandate is simple:
“[They] help rough sleepers move into affordable rental housing and provide the support they need to maintain it in the long run.”
Simple. Clear. Uncomplicated. Or as uncomplicated as anything can be that is in any way involved with Hungarian bureaucracy and local politics.
“Our main activity is based on an innovative idea: we renovate vacant, run-down municipal apartments with the help of volunteers, and with the participation of the homeless families who will then move into the apartments.”
The idea began in 2012 when the plight of homeless couples living in self-built huts in Terebes forest near Kőbánya came to the attention of Anna Bende and Vera Kovács. They stepped in when the municipality made moves to demolish the huts.
Imagine it. You and your partner live in a hut you have made yourselves from scrap materials like cardboard, wood, corrugated iron, and perhaps some branches. You’ve furnished it as best you can with an old mattress and some upturned boxes as tables. Someone visits and thinks it awful. Horrendous. They want to get you closer to full housing so they put you in a homeless shelter thinking they’re doing you a favour. But, in fact, they’re separating you from your partner, getting rid of your possessions, however meagre, and destroying your home. Sometimes, doing good is more about the do-gooder than the person or people being done to. Bende and Kovács recognised this, as did then Deputy Mayor of Kőbánya, Tibor Weeber. An idea was hatched and a plan was born.
The municipality gave them two rundown apartments, which volunteers fixed up and made liveable. It took a while but in 2013, Valika and Albi and then Feri and Julika moved into their new homes. Ten years later, ULE is still in the renovation business, now with a warehouse full of donated furniture and building materials to draw from and an impressive list of volunteers who want to do some good with their time.
The housing situation in Hungary is dire. You’d never think it, with the prices city apartments are attracting and the steady influx of foreign buyers. But as happens all too often, foreign investors price local buyers out of the market and the demand for tourism beds often desiccates rental opportunities for low-income key workers as well. The vast majority of municipal decrees make it impossible for homeless people to get municipal housing. Short of winning the lotto, there’s no place for them to go. And, all too often, municipal housing is run down and uninhabitable; they simply don’t have the resources to fix them up. Underneath the glitzy veneer of the country’s capital lies a desperate situation that is at best unseen and at worst blatantly ignored.
ULE is about more than providing homes; their social services offer before, during, and after tenants move in is in line with the Housing First approach developed in New York in the early 1990s. Viewing housing security as the first step on the long road to social integration, ULE’s goal is to give their clients a stable home from which to rebuild their lives. Those of us who pay utility bills out of habit perhaps can’t imagine the pride to be felt when someone who once lived on the street pays their first gas or electricity bill for their own flat with money they’ve earned. We take so much for granted.
A strong advocate for affordable rental housing provision, ULE works on the policy scene to effect changes to the system. Mass shelters are not the answer to national homelessness. And criminalising homelessness and enshrining this criminalisation in the Constitution hasn’t done much either. Interagency cooperation is key. I was delighted to read that ULE is involved in an Erasmus programme with Focus Ireland and other national housing organisations focusing on elderly people who are experiencing or have experience homelessness.
With a housing agency, support groups, peer mentoring, and a women’s club, ULE is building a solid foundation for those exiting homelessness. But they’re not the only ones benefiting. Many of the volunteers are seeing another side to life and learning from people they might previously have looked through and undervalued. Giving a face to homelessness is important. Recognising their situation for the systemic failure it is, is critical. Birthing an idea and nurturing it into an award-winning programme is laudable [ULE took bronze in the 2020 World Habitat Awards -that’s some achievement].
If you’re paying tax in Hungary, consider pledging 1% of your personal income tax to ULE. The deadline is 22 May. You’ll need the Association’s tax number: 18625880-1-42. For more information on what ULE is doing and has been doing, check their website: https://utcarollakasba.hu/about-us/
First published in the Budapest Times 13 May 2023