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Homeless people face prison in Hungary after tough new law is passed

A homeless woman lies on the street in Budapest, Hungary, October 14, 2018.
A homeless woman lies on the street in Budapest, Hungary, October 14, 2018. Copyright  REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
Copyright  REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
By Rita Palfi & Alice Tidey
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At least three homeless people were arrested last week in Hungary after a law criminalising rough sleeping came into effect.


At least three homeless people were arrested last week in Hungary after a new, widely-condemned law banning rough sleeping came into effect.

The law came into force on October 15 following a constitutional amendment passed in June which brands rough sleeping a crime.

Police must now order homeless people to move into shelters and can arrest them if they haven't done so after being ordered three times in a 90-day period. Punishments include jail time, community service and their possessions being destroyed.

Three arrests in one week

The first arrest was made last Tuesday, just one day after the law kicked in, in Godollo, a town less than 40 kms from the country's capital. The man — a former engineer who lost his house — was then brought in front of a judge on Wednesday.

His lawyer argued that he was well know in the area for being harmless and that he does not want to go to a shelter because fights regulary break out there. He was let off with a warning — public prosecutors had asked for 30 days in jail.

A 61-year-old woman — who's been rough sleeping in Budapest for the past five months after losing her home following the death of her partner — was also brought in front of a judge on Friday. She received a warning but has since launched an appeal procedure.

On Sunday, another man was sent to trial which was postponed because of his poor health.

'Homeless people are not criminals'

The government of right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long tried to outlaw homelessness but earlier attempts were struck down by the Supreme Court. The constitutional amendment backed by parliamentarians in June states that "habitual residence in a public space is forbidden."

An estimated 30,000 homeless people live in Hungary, most of them in Budapest and aid groups have widely condemned the law.

"Homeless people are not criminals," the "A Város Mindenki" (City is for All) activist group wrote in an open letter to the Police last week.

"Reducing public homelessness is a fundamental public interest. But this does not require punitive measures, but fair social policy!," it added.

Sandor Esik, a lawyer, has launched a petition to protest the criminalisation of homelessness. On Monday afternoon, the petition, which describes rough-sleeping as "one of the worst situations in which people can be," had been signed by nearly 1,700 people.

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a charity, blasted the law as "offensive to fundamental human right" but also branded it "needlessly expensive" in a statement released last week.

According to its calculations, sending an homeless person to jail for a day would cost taxpayers 8,000 forints (€25).

The group estimates that the cost of prosecuting and sending a homeless person to jail for 30 days — as requested by authorities in the case against the man in Godollo — would result in an 110,000 forints bill for taxpayers (€341) which "could easily cover a month's rent."

The government has dismissed criticism and said that it allocated about 9 billion forints (€27.8 million) to homeless care its 2018 budget.

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