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Hungary's homeless ban: Campaigners slam 'policy of total evil' with temperatures set to fall

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Hungary's homeless ban: Campaigners slam 'policy of total evil' with temperatures set to fall
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You are unlikely to see many people sleeping rough on the streets of Helsinki or in the tourist areas of Budapest.

But while Finland has won accolades for ending homelessness, Hungary has sparked concern by sweeping it under the carpet.

A law came into force in October that made rough sleeping a criminal offence and repeat offenders could face jail.

The government of Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban — whose human rights policies are said to flout EU norms — said the change aims to provide proper living conditions for the homeless and has set aside money to help them.

Freezing in the forests?

But campaigners say Hungary has three times as many homeless people than it does shelter places.

Vera Kovacs, who works at Hungary-based NGO From Streets to Home Association, told Euronews she fears it will lead to more people freezing to death.

Kovacs said the law had seen homeless people leave central areas of Budapest — where temperatures drop to as low as -10°C in winter — and live in forests on the edge of Hungary’s capital.

“We believe it’s very dangerous for homeless people that they feel that they need to hide, especially when it’s this cold,” she said.

Charity workers say before homelessness was outlawed they knew where to find and check on people.

But, by criminalising it, rough sleepers are hiding from authorities and it is harder to get help to them.

“If people feel that they need to hide then no-one can see if they are in danger of freezing,” added Kovacs.

'A policy of total evil'

Campaigners say police handed out 200 warnings in the first week homelessness was criminalised but no-one had yet been convicted.

Kovacs said there was also misunderstandings with some rough sleepers unaware that police had given them oral warnings to get off the street.

“Criminalisation of homeless people does not work,” said Freek Spinnewijn, director of the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA).

“You start by giving them a fine. They can’t pay. You give them another fine because they cannot pay the fine. In the end, they end up in prison. You cannot put them in prison for life so they will come out and probably be worse than when they went in. It’s a totally vicious circle.”

Spinnewijn believes it would be cheaper to provide housing than take people through the courts and jail them.

“I don’t know,” said Spinnewijn when asked why Hungary is doing this. “It’s difficult to believe the people that are behind such a policy of total evil.

“It’s also to do with a serious lack of understanding of what the problem of homelessness is all about.”

It’s not just Hungary that Spinnewijn is frustrated with, he also thinks Brussels should condemn Budapest’s move.

“It’s a dramatic situation and also what frustrates us enormously is that Hungary, like Poland, is under close supervision by the EU.

“But the criminalisation of homelessness does not seem to be serious enough for the European Commission to publicly denounce it and that I find very worrying.”

What does Hungary's government say?

"Hungary strives to ensure decent living conditions and access to public services for its citizens. At the same time, in cooperation with the municipalities, the government must protect public spaces and the human dignity of all Hungarians," it said in a statement to Euronews.

"Considering that, currently, the number of available shelter beds is sufficient to provide accommodation to those in need, a prohibition of habitual presence in public spaces can now be realistically adopted. This is a prohibition on what is sometimes referred to as urban camping or sleeping rough.

"Hungary’s homelessness ban is aimed at saving the lives of rough sleepers. The regulations are to prevent homeless people from freezing in public spaces in winter and to help those living in the street find homeless shelters. Homeless shelters are prepared for the winter season with a total of 19,000 beds, complete with facilities for personal hygiene and health services, 24 hours-a-day. Homeless facilities help clients to social services, clothing, (regular) jobs or participation in public works schemes, or training. It is obvious that the way out of homelessness is through these temporary shelters.

"A ban on sleeping rough is not without precedent in Europe. Several other EU member states have already passed certain regulations on the issue. Such behaviour, for example, is sanctioned on a constitutional level in Cyprus and Malta. On top of this, there are many other countries (Austria, Belgium, Estonia etc.) where the question appears indirectly in the constitution.

"Even if it’s not dealt with in the fundamental law, there are many states where habitual public space presence constitutes a violation of lower degree laws and regulations. Examples range from the UK and France through Germany and Belgium to Slovenia, where a 2006 law prohibits sleeping rough in places which don’t serve this purpose and where it might disturb others."