15 October 2018
The Punitive State: if you can’t solve it, ban it!
Whenever there’s public dissent or the government finds no solution to a social problem, governments of the Fidesz party resorts to prohibition or punishment. Harassment and discrimination of the homeless people has been ongoing for long, but this new level of persecution of homelessness began at the time of the second Fidesz government and has continuously been on Fidesz’s agenda ever since. In summer 2018, the two third majority of the parliament banned homelessness in the whole country, making the lives of one of the most vulnerable social groups even harder. The Law on Petty Offences was modified along the seventh amendment to the Fundamental Law, which enters into force on 15th October 2018.
The amendments bring major changes
The government has taken away local communities’ right to make their own decision on this issue. Until now, local governments have had the right to decide about banning homelessness in their area, but from today on, homelessness is a criminal offence in the whole country, and homeless people are made to be offenders.
Earlier, an infringement of the “rules of residing on public premises for habitation” was punishable with community service or a fine. The new regulations allow for confinement. The earlier rules were hardly ever used by police though: since the end of 2016 there was no petty offences procedure initiated for rough sleeping. According to media report, a major police action is expected to happen on October 16th-17th, on the eve of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty 2018 to ‘wipe out’ homeless people from public spaces.
According to the new regulation, if someone is caught for rough sleeping three times, the punitive machine begins to operate: police may act against a homeless person multiple times a day, one person may even be warned several times a day. If someone is warned three times in 90 days, on the fourth occasion, the police is obliged to initiate petty offence procedure. In such a case, the offender of a petty offence must be immediately brought to 72 hour detention. The custody lasts until the final decision, which may take up to several weeks. After three occurrences, the petty offence is punishable by community service or confinement (1-60 days). A person who has been convicted by a court twice in six months may only be sentenced to custody; community service or warning are not options anymore.
We believe, that with the new, rights-abusing laws against the homeless people the government is just papering over the cracks. Instead of sweeping the problem of homelessness under the carpet, there is a need for real social policy intervention, such as increasing the number of social housing units.
Custodial sentence instead of housing policy and meaningful social social policy intervention
The seventh amendment to the Fundamental Law prescribes that the protection of Christian values is an obligation for every state body. We see it as a fundamental contradiction that the same amendment launched discriminating and humiliating measures against the homeless people.
The aim of the regulation is to terminate the visibility of public homelessness, and to force homeless people to shelters by threatening them with imprisonment. However, neither social services, nor the authorities, nor the law enforcement agencies are prepared for the reception of several thousand people and the management of social problems by the means of criminal policy. The expected effect of the amendment is that those living in public areas are excluded from cities and will retire to places where they have less or no access to public services, which increases their social discrimination. The regulation is not going to solve the habitation problems of homeless people, and public areas will not be cleaner either; however, the burden on authorities, social services and law enforcement institutions, as well as discrimination against the homeless in society will significantly increase.
Tens of millions of HUF spent on imprisonment, yet no real solutions found by stakeholders
No official statistics exist regarding the number of people living on the streets and in shelters. It is estimated that the number of people affected by homelessness is between 12-30 thousand in the country, while tens of thousands are threatened by losing their homes due to debts or high rents caused by the unregulated property market. However, according to the Ministry of Human Resources, the number of places available for homeless people is 9600 in the whole country, with an additional 1500 places may be used in “crisis situations”.
Even if there were enough spaces, it is important to know that families are separated in shelters. Male shelters are available for men, and female shelters for women, while children are taken into public care in the case of losing their homes. Meanwhile, according to the data requested by the NGO The City is for All, there are 2500 empty flats in Budapest owned by local governments, that are not given to those in need. Local governments of the Hungarian capital spend at least 190 million HUF annually on the maintenance of empty flats, and last year, at least 346 flats owned by local governments were privatised.
The Petty Offences Working Group is of the opinion that budgetary resources should be spent on the prevention of homelessness, i.e. the prevention of families becoming indebted and losing their homes, not on the imprisonment of the vulnerable. One day of the detention of an offender costs approximately 8000 HUF. Based on the statistics of unpaid fines, homeless people have spent 70 days in detention in total since 2012. Every single Forint is a waste of money, spent on the punishment of a living situation instead of the solution of a problem.
Orbán’s government heads towards arbitrary rule
This is in line with the series of steps of the Fidesz government aiming to demolish the rule of law, which have so far resulted in a decrease in the power of the Constitutional Court, and a threat to the function of the checks and balances. For the past few years, the Fidesz government has attacked independent human rights NGOs and several higher education institutions and has succeeded in narrowing down the selection of independent press publications.
After another 2/3 majority achieved in the parliamentary elections of 2018, the series of attacks against independent NGOs continued with the adoption of new laws; the independence of courts, as well as the freedom of research and education, are threatened. The government propaganda has resulted in a surge in xenophobia, and the number of victims of constant hostility is on the rise. The latest steps of this authoritarian way of exercising power are prospects of a 25% penalty tax on oorganizations dealing with refugees, as well as a potential one-year imprisonment of those who help refugees.
The Hungarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Street Lawyers’ Association are the members of the Petty Offences Working Group.