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Save this man

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

 

2014 Grateful 2

When I’ve not been glued to the telly, I’ve been out and about catching up with people, some of whom I’ve known for years, and others I’ve met more recently. It’s all been good. It’s all part of coming home for the holidays.

Dublin, a city I love more and more the longer I’m away from it, is buzzing. Having lunch in Powerscourt the other day, we were serenaded by a series of carolers raising money for various charities. They ran the gamut from Jingle Bells to more operatic airs and each one just added another bit of flavour to the goodwill that was abounding.

Christmas is a time when thoughts turn to charity – to those less fortunate than ourselves. The collectors are out in the droves, shaking buckets and making pleas. And yet, given the various exposés earlier this year of how the funds raised by various Irish big-name charities were spent, as a nation, there’s a wariness about where to give money.

choirOne of the nicest stories I’ve heard/seen so far this week is that of the High Hopes Choir who made their debut on the Late Late Show (Ireland’s longest-running TV chat show) back in October.

The choir is the brainchild of David Brophy who worked with some of Ireland’s better known charities dealing with homelessness -Dublin Simon Community, Saint Vincent De Paul, and Focus Ireland – to put together two regional choirs – one in Dublin and the other in Waterford. Choir members have one thing in common, apart from being willing to sing: they are either directly affected by homelessness or volunteer with those who are.

Brophy summed it up beautifully:

In just 8 weeks, through 20 rehearsals and over 1200 cups of tea and coffee, more than 60 people, all dealing with Ireland’s homeless crisis, reach beyond the stars.

They recorded Kodaline’s High Hopes, which was then released as a single and is now a chart topper at iTunes. Then they put on a gala concert for 400 people at Christchurch, where they were accompanied by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and with guest performances from Lisa Hannigan and Brian Kennedy.

In  a TV special that I bawled my way through, the overriding message was that this choir, and belonging to it, gave people back their voice. As homeless people, no one listens to them. But now, performing in front of many of Ireland’s musical greats, on national TV, and in Dublin’s iconic cathedral, they’ve rediscovered who they are and more importantly, what they can be. The stories were heart-wrenching and a lesson in humility.

David Brophy, a former conductor with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, fronted the TV series that provided a forum for the initiative. After the gig at Christchurch, when the participants were interviewed about how much being part of the project meant to them, their gratitude to him was overwhelming. They gave themselves credit, too. And it was a lovely balance, one that struck me as missing from my more settled world. All too often we forget to give thanks and we forget to give ourselves credit, too. Or else we overdo it to the point of  what we’d call at home ‘mé féin-ing’. We can be our own worst critics, our own worst enemies. And yet, with a little rightful humility and a dash of gratefulness, maybe we could restore some meaning to what we do. That was the lesson I learned from the High Hopes Choir – one that, this week, I’m truly grateful for.

 

The High Hopes Choir on iTunes 90 cent from each download will be split equally between Dublin Simon Community, Saint Vincent De Paul and Focus Ireland.

 

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.

HK4HK5For 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.

HK3HK2The 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?

HK1He 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.

hk6On 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.

Introducing the Grateful series

 

 

 

A change of fortune

To go from relative obscurity to international fame in a matter of days could be a dream or a nightmare, depending on which angle you look at it from. Personally – I’d prefer the obscurity. But for Győr resident László Andraschek, news of his good fortune was picked up the Guardian and subsequently newspapers in places as far flung as Taipei and Zambia. His win, relatively modest by many lottery standards – HUF 630 million (€2 million) – is certainly news – but international news?

lottoWhat makes Andraschek different is that prior to purchasing his winning ticket, he was, in fact, homeless. He actually won the lottery last September but it’s only now coming to light. Andraschek attracted international attention when he made a significant donation to a homeless shelter in Hungary. It was that good deed rather than the win itself that made the news, coinciding as it does with a series of protests worldwide against the new law that allows local authorities do what they need to do to protect ‘public order, security, health and cultural values’.

In Budapest, the measures taken include banning ‘habitual living’ in public places. These include underneath bridges, subways, parks and playgrounds, and much of the tourist trail in the city centre. The city of Debrecen has followed suit banning its homeless from the city and from the neighbouring Nagyerd forest. Violations of the law result in fines, community service, and possible imprisonment.    Hungarian embassies and consulates in Paris, New York, Vienna, Lisbon, Dublin, Brussels, Essen, and Istanbul have witnessed demonstrations from their windows in recent weeks. And more are planned.

lotto2Buying the ticket was a last-minute decision apparently, a spur of the moment thing that certainly paid off. He has bought flats for his three kids, paid off his debt and that of his relatives, donated to the shelter, and is now setting up a foundation to support addicts and victims of domestic violence. He also plans to travel to Italy. He says he hasn’t changed as a person and that he will invest cautiously. I hope so.

I Googled ‘lottery win ruins lives’ and was a little taken aback at the number of stories it coughed up. It seems for that for many, the overnight change in fortune goes to their head. Binging on designer clothes, fancy cars, and a lifestyle that would mirror that of a B-list celebrity, things start to go wrong very quickly. Perhaps they should have listened to the wise words of Somerset Maugham: Money is like a sixth sense – and you can’t make use of the other five without it.

lotto1I’d be lying if I said I’ve never daydreamed about winning the lottery. Who I’d tell (no one). How I’d spend it (anonymously). Where I’d go (everywhere). A fortune-teller told me once that I was destined to be rich (I thought she was referring to monetary wealth rather than that which comes in the guise of good friends, health, and happiness) – and part of me is still holding out hope. I wonder how much my life would change. How much I would change. I’d like to think that like Andraschek, I, too, could say that the money had little effect other than to give me to means to do good. But I’d have to win it first to see.

First published in the Budapest Times 21 February 2014.