How has Hungary’s rough sleeping ban impacted homelessness in the country?

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has locked horns with the European Parliament since changing the constitution to outlaw sleeping rough last year

Hungary’s rough sleeping ban hit the international headlines when it came into force last October in the latest sign of a waning democracy in the European country.

It was revealed last June that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, shortly after being re-elected, would change the country’s constitution to outlaw rough sleeping next to cultural sites or important sites, encompassing most of Budapest.

Orbán’s regime had already been subject of a European Parliament report into the “declining democracy and the rule of law” in Hungary by the time it came into force.

The Hungarian government has no interest whatsoever in normalising the situation

But has the ban lived up to fears that rough sleepers would spend more time in prison cells than on the streets as part of Orbán’s marginalising campaign?

Zoltán Gurály is a sociologist at homelessness group Menhely Alapítvány (Shelter Foundation) and told The Big Issue that the matter is still dragging its feet in Hungary’s Constitutional Court.

“Gradually homeless people came back to the city centre of Budapest, and continue sleeping rough due to the pending decision,” he said. “But still, there are many people, whom we cannot find after they had gone to the suburbs.

“Sometimes the police still go to the subways, and send people away, but they do not give warnings to them anymore. We know only four cases when homeless people were sentenced in court, but none of them had to serve prison time.”

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It is a similar story from Róbert Kepe, coordinator of the Budapest street paper Fedél Nélkül, who insisted that: “The law didn’t affect the job of our vendors, we can work where we did in the past.”

But that hasn’t stopped Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini, who penned the European Parliament report into Orbán’s Hungary, of warning about the state of the country.

She said: “The legislation on criminalising rough sleeping was put in the Hungarian constitution after I published my report, which actually shows that, since September when we voted, things have continued to go downhill in Hungary. And it actually shows that the Hungarian government has no interest whatsoever in normalising the situation.

“What they’re doing is picking on vulnerable groups, whether they are Roma or LGBT or homeless people. They have a whole narrative around homelessness about how what they are doing is the right thing because people do not have to sleep on the streets while its cold outside.”

In the wake of rough sleeping stats around the UK being released in recent weeks, The Big Issue opted to look beyond our borders to see two differing approaches to tackling the issue – in Hungary and Finland.

To see what we found, buy this week’s Big Issue magazine, available now from Big Issue vendors around the country or in The Big Issue Shop.

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