In 2013, when the Hungarian government first criminalised homelessness, the BBC reported figures from The civic group, the City Belongs to Everyone, estimating that 10,000 people lived on the city’s streets or in shelters they had fashioned in the forests on the outskirts of the capital. Yet, they said, there were fewer than 6,000 places in hostels, a serious shortfall. But the government said there was ample shelter available, almost 100%.
In 2018, it’s difficult to tell what the real figures are, but a simple walk around the city shows that homelessness in Budapest is pervasive. Last month’s amendment to the Constitution which now reads ‘Habitual residence in a public space is forbidden’ has flooded social media channels with opinions for and against the edict. Those supporting it want the streets cleared, conscious as they are of the approaching winter and of the inherent aesthetic blight; those against say it does little more than criminalise poverty.
But shouldn’t the issue be how to prevent homelessness in the first place?
Meet A_. Born in 1964 to a music conductor and a socialite mother, A_ has been beset by illness since he was a baby. His mother, more concerned with her social standing than the wellbeing of her baby, left him out in the rain in his pram for a day. His kidneys never recovered. A_ trained as a cook and worked in restaurants in the city and also inherited some musical talent from his father. He was, he says, quite a good bass guitar player. Life was good. He had a job, a doting father, and his music.
At 30, A_ was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and sentenced to life in a wheelchair. His father bought him a tiny house in Páty village in Budapest county. He managed okay until his father died, leaving him alone in a house he was unable to maintain. His wheelchair sentence was miraculously commuted; he regained some of his mobility, but not enough to do the necessary maintenance on his home. His disability pension didn’t stretch to paying anyone to do it either.
Two months ago, A_ had a heart attack while in the village. An ambulance took him away. Had he been at home, he’d surely have died. My friend in Páty noticed he hadn’t been around and knowing he was short on relatives and friends, tracked him down. She took him money, clothes, and food. He was well looked after in the hospital and came home with a new pacemaker. But his living conditions had deteriorated in his absence.
Today, the roof of his cabin has a gaping hole. The only thing stopping the rain and snow from coming in is a thin sheet of plastic. There is no insulation. No bath. No shower. No kitchen. No gas. No heating. No chimney. Just about all it has, in addition to its four walls, is running water and electricity. But last month, the electricity failed. A_ has paid his 300 ft bill each month (he uses just one 25w lightbulb) but his system has worn out. It hasn’t been updated in 40 years. To bring it up to code will cost at least 120 000 ft. This has to happen before ELMÜ will switch his electricity back on.
A_ is resilient. He’s a survivor. He can take the hunger, the dirt, the cold but he cannot handle the darkness. A passionate writer of short stories, freestyle poems, and self-reflections, writing has become his life, his raison d’etre. But he cannot write in the dark. Preferring to go hungry and be cold, he spends his money candles. If neighbours offer to bring him food and clothes, he asks instead for typewriter ribbons.
His future looks bleak. Although intelligent and well read, A_ has some psychological problems that make him incapable of arranging complicated things like the electricity reconnect. It won’t be long before his house falls down around him, leaving him homeless. As for moving to a shelter, he says he’d rather freeze in the dark than give up his independence.
A_ visits my friend regularly. She washes his clothes and feeds him. They chat about books, films, and music. He recites chapters from his favourite novels and verses of his favourite poems. He’s very positive, she says. Although he’s in constant pain, always cold, and most probably hungry, he still has a sense of humour. That, and his passion for writing keep him going.
A_, like so many others, is just a hair’s breadth from being homeless. But with help, he can live with dignity, maintain his independence, and keep on writing. And if this help is immediate, local, and well-directed by someone who cares about his needs and dignity, A_’s home can be saved.
Christmas is just around the corner. The ads are out. The tinsel is in. The shops are gearing up for the inevitable tide of mass consumerism. Hundreds of euro and thousands of forints will be spent on presents often neither wanted nor needed. My decision was an easy one. When my friend told me his story, I knew immediately that helping to keep A_ housed and warm and writing would be a better use of my Christmas budget. I made the transfer to help sort his electricity problem so that ELMÜ will reconnect his power. But his roof still needs fixing and his house still needs heating.
Are you disillusioned with the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots? Do you realise that but for the grace of whatever God you worship or whatever force you believe in, you could be in A_’s shoes? Do you believe that local solutions to local problems work better than the overly costly, unnecessarily legalistic, and very quickly political solutions introduced by state bureaucracy? Would you like to help save one man’s home, and in doing so, save his dignity? Let me know. I’ll put you in touch with my friend in Páty who is working to make sure it all happens.
First published in the Budapest Times 16 November 2018