Criminalising the Homeless – A State Strategy in Hungary

by Éva Tessza Udvarhelyi

The Hungarian government is criminalising homelessness in an attempt to secure political dominance, and to obscure the failure of the state to address the social, political and economic contradictions of post-socialist Hungary.

First published: 21 November, 2014 | Category: Europe

In the first half of 2014, Hungarian households spent an average of 24.7% of their income on housing—perilously close to the 30% level generally used as an indicator of highly unaffordable housing. Housing expenses are an increasingly critical issue for a large part of the population. The number of people living in substandard and extremely overcrowded conditions is estimated at 1.5 million. In 2012, 413,000 households had arrears in utilities exceeding three months whilst tens of thousands were at risk of eviction because of mortgage default. In 2011, overall household debt in Hungary was the sixth largest in the European Union. One million people cannot heat their homes properly and the occurrence of cold-related deaths is 10 times higher than in other developed countries.

It is difficult to say exactly how many of Hungary’s population of 10 million are directly affected by homelessness. The number of ‘effectively homeless people’ or those who live on the street or in shelters is at least 25,000–30,000. In the course of a year, as many as 100,000 people may be affected by homelessness, including more than 29,000 people who were registered as long-term clients in the homeless shelter system and more than 42,000 individuals who used homeless services at least once in 2010 as well as those who live with family or friends out of necessity. In Budapest, population close to 2 million, at least 4,000 people live in public spaces and some 6,000 people sleep in various institutional settings such as night shelters and temporary shelters.

Since the transition from state socialism to neoliberal capitalism in the late 1980s, Hungary has witnessed a sharp increase in social inequality. Visible homelessness has been one of the most significant manifestations of the country’s social transformation. While in the early 1990s, public sentiment towards homeless people tended towards compassion, attitudes have hardened over the past few years. Institutional responses to homelessness have mostly consisted of emergency solutions and the development of a complex but ineffective shelter system. Recently, the management of homelessness has been coupled with restrictive welfare policies and legislation aimed at criminalisation, combined with ‘quality of life’ campaigns that prioritise ‘clean’, ‘safe’ and managed public spaces at the expense of basic human needs.

In the midst of a global tendency towards the penalisation of poverty, Hungary has led the way with its criminalisation of homelessness. While the legitimacy of criminalisation is contingent upon the moral exclusion of the groups that are being penalised, the growing significance of criminalisation as state strategy signals a deep social, economic and political crisis in Hungarian society.

Poverty and homelessness under the new capitalism

The structural adjustment that took place between 1988 and 1995 destroyed more economic assets in Hungary than the Second World War. The introduction of foreign capital, the gradual transition to a service and finance-based economy and the arrival of modern technology rendered existing skills and infrastructure obsolete and many unskilled workers redundant. Between 1989 and 1992, around one-third (1.5 million) of all jobs disappeared and declining employment disproportionately affected socially disadvantaged populations. Mass unemployment led to mass poverty, with relative and absolute poverty increasing over threefold. In addition to the surfacing of previously hidden poverty, unskilled workers and elements of the socialist-era middle class also experienced large-scale impoverishment. According to Ferge et al. the biggest losers of the regime change included those who were:

…low on all types of capital—economic, cultural, social, psychological or other. They were probably never among the best off, but in the former system most of them had gained existential security and some sort of, perhaps token, self-esteem … More concretely, among the losers we find the unemployed … many of the unskilled or semi-skilled … village-dwellers (peasants); families with children, who are losing family benefits and child-care services; and, as a result, some women.

According to Ladányi (2010), the most significant aspect of post-transition poverty was the formation of an ‘underclass’ made up of permanently unemployed people with no proper access to social security, education and health care. The Roma were hit particularly hard. Following the years of virtual full employment under state socialism, only 30% of Roma men were employed in 1995. Today, around 50% of Roma citizens live in racially segregated areas with inferior infrastructure. At the same time, most Hungarians affected by deep poverty are not Roma. In addition to the entrenchment and racialisation of poverty, extreme regional stratification was also a hallmark of post-socialist transformation. With the collapse of state socialist industrial production, certain regions, especially in northeastern Hungary, were plunged into persistent poverty, creating segregated enclaves of almost total unemployment and misery.

Poverty is one of the most pressing issues in contemporary Hungary. The number of people living below the subsistence minimum is estimated at 3.7 million, or nearly 40% of the population. More than 1 million people, or 12% of the population, live below the poverty line. The populations most likely to become homeless include young people growing up in foster care, the unemployed and underemployed, former prison inmates, people with mental health or substance abuse issues, and the victims of domestic violence. While the majority of homeless people are men between the ages of 38 and 44, the proportion of homeless women rose from 10% to 25–30% since the regime change. In terms of ethnicity, 20% of the respondents in a 2004 survey reported having been called a Gypsy, which is much higher than the proportion of Roma Hungarians in the general population (5–10%). In general, the educational levels of homeless people are worse than that of the general population, but not significantly different from the 50‒69 age group. At the same time, many people are trained in obsolete professions and young homeless people tend to have few qualifications.

Moral exclusion and homelessness in post-socialist Hungary

While poor people have teetered on the edge of social regard, moral exclusion (or the threat of it) has been consistently used to keep them both in their place and out of sight. Historically, the moral exclusion of homeless people has been brought about through a variety of discursive, social, economic, legal, institutional and spatial practices.

Under state socialism in Hungary, large-scale state investment in social infrastructure such as housing, education and healthcare was coupled with a highly repressive political system. Because structural reasons could not be cited for the existence of homelessness, personal deviances were used to explain the lack of a permanent home (Horváth 2012:370). In this framework, the disappearance of homeless people through criminalisation and institutionalisation was considered an adequate public response. In practice, people without a permanent home were often deported to correctional facilities, hospitals or psychiatric institutions. Poor old people posed a particular problem. In 1967, the Budapest police chief wrote the following: ‘We disturb [beggars] by checking their IDs regularly, but what should we do with the old ones who are not able to work?’ (Horváth 2012:378) One solution was to commit poor old people to social homes (Horváth 2012:373), which were state-sponsored institutions often situated in isolated rural areas. Alcoholics were sent to work therapy institutions, which were a combination of jail and workhouse. People arrested for loitering or being out of work were charged with ‘dangerous avoidance of work’, an infraction punishable by a fine, compulsory work, short-term detention and/or municipal expulsion. In 1985 alone, 5,780 procedures were initiated for the dangerous avoidance of work.

After the collapse of state socialism, almost all such criminalising legislation was quickly repealed. As a result, for a short period of time, criminalisation was suspended as an appropriate response to social problems. But political realities meant that this grace period did not last long: since the early 1990s the Hungarian state has introduced elements of the social and the penal state mostly in response to developments in the ruling party’s popularity, economic conditions and external pressure. Overall, over the past two decades, the criminalisation of poor and marginalised populations has been reinforced to varying degrees by successive governments, regardless of their proclaimed political orientation.

When it comes to public attitudes to homelessness, Hungarians have gradually lost the compassion that was more typical around the time of the regime change in 1989, manifested especially when homeless people staged a series of large demonstrations in Budapest. The lack of solidarity and growing impatience with homeless people is partly rooted in the social insecurity experienced on a daily basis by many Hungarians. Growing disappointment with the promises of the regime change has led to a dominant public discourse that blames homeless individuals, rather than ineffective state responses, for being unable to keep up with the demands of the new regime.

In recent years, socio-spatial exclusion has become more explicit and formalised. In 2002, for example, Budapest’s mayor introduced the first city-wide program to ‘clean’ the city’s major underground passages from ‘graffiti, illegal vendors and homeless people’. The criminalisation of street homelessness picked up in the early to mid-2000s as municipalities started to pass anti-rummaging ordinances on a large scale. The first ordinances that limited the spatial and temporal scope of silent begging were passed in 2005. By 2011, there were at least 40 local ordinances that restricted silent begging and rummaging through garbage. Some municipalities have also banned camping or ‘setting up domicile’ in public space. In 2009, the mayor of the 11th district of Budapest escalated these informal policies by openly declaring so-called ‘homeless-free zones’.

The criminalisation of homelessness as state strategy

After these rather ad hoc precedents, the systematic criminalization of homelessness became official policy with the election of the right-wing Fidesz government in 2010. In 2010, one of the first measures of Budapest’s newly elected mayor—whose role model is Rudy Giuliani—was to launch the public spaces clean-up program abandoned by the previous liberal mayor. In November 2010, the new mayor ordered all homeless people to vacate major underground pedestrian passages until 15 December. He warned that if anyone stayed on, they would be forcibly removed by the authorities. The mayor’s program was met with mixed reactions. While The City is for All, a homeless-led advocacy group, mobilised against it and homeless services providers struggled to provide shelter for those being evicted, many residents seemed to give tacit support to the initiative. In the meantime, the city set up so-called ‘Survival Spots’ as alternatives to the underground passages where homeless people were able to spend the night in a ‘street-like environment’—allegedly without harassment.

At the national level, the first specifically anti-homeless legislation was passed in September 2010. The modification to the Law on Constructions defined seven legitimate ways of using public space, including leisure and protest, and allowed local municipalities to ban any other activity that would obstruct the appropriate use of public space. When the bill was first introduced, it emphasised the presence of homeless people as one form of obstruction that municipalities could ban. While the wording was later removed, the intent of the law remained the same: to create a legal framework for local anti-homeless ordinances. At the local level, the capital city was the first to seize this opportunity: in April 2011, the mayor initiated a local law that would ban living in public spaces in the entire city. While leaving the definition of ‘living in public spaces’ to the discretion of authorities, those who broke the law could be fined up to $250. 

The anti-homeless campaign was most fervently adopted by the eighth district of Budapest. In a municipal referendum in September 2011, local citizens were asked whether they agreed with the prohibition of picking through garbage and a ban on living in public spaces. Even though the referendum was not valid (only 16% of eligible voters attended), the local mayor used it as a source of legitimacy to start what he called a public order campaign. Over the ensuing months, hundreds of homeless people were detained in an office specifically opened for this purpose for ‘crimes’, such as living in public space, public urination, consumption of alcohol, picking through garbage and begging. In a matter of a few months, homeless people were arrested for sleeping in public in 800 cases all over the country, out of which 600 occurred in the eighth district.

Using a gruesome crime that was linked to some members of a homeless colony in the island of Csepel as a pretext, the national authorities also initiated a vigorous anti-homeless campaign in 2011. In terms of law enforcement, in order to create a database of all homeless colonies police officers visited all known shack settlements in Budapest, took pictures of their locations and created a comprehensive GIS map. For months, the police checked on these settlements more intensively. In addition, later that year, the Minister of Interior declared a war on people who panhandled, sold street newspapers or washed windshields at traffic lights. Following his order, hundreds of people were prosecuted for such ‘crimes’.

In addition to intensified enforcement, the development of a special kind of social-correctional institution was also part of the political push towards criminalisation. In February 2011, a joint internal letter by the Ministry of Human Resources and the Ministry of Interior was leaked, which contained their plan to reduce visible homelessness in public spaces by setting up detention centres specifically for homeless people. According to the letter, these institutions would ‘serve as a detention centre for infractions, especially for those who do not want to use social service at their own will. By nature, these … are not social institutions as those cannot be used for arrest and detention and people cannot be forced to use them’.

A few months after this letter was sent out, two new homeless shelters were opened in Budapest. Officially opened by the Minister of Interior and the mayor of Budapest, both buildings contained a police station and a short-term jail. Although the police do not intervene in the operation of the shelters, today the physical possibility exists to turn a part of these shelters into detention centres.

The culmination of the anti-homeless campaign came in the legislative session of the fall of 2011. First, Parliament passed a law that made it possible for local governments to punish living in public spaces by fine and imprisonment. Then, in December, the Parliament made living in public spaces, and keeping one’s belongings there, illegal all over the country. For ‘repeat offenders’, this infraction became punishable by jail. While informal practices of harassment and deportation abound all over Europe, this was the first national law that made street homelessness itself a criminal category. Despite intense local and international protest (see Udvarhelyi 2014), the law came into effect in April 2012. Over a span of seven months, charges were initiated in more than 2,000 cases under this law and a total of almost 40 million HUF (around US$200,000) was incurred in fines.

In a surprising turn of events, the Constitutional Court declared this anti-homeless legislation unconstitutional and annulled it in November 2012. According to the court, the law lacked any constitutional basis and was overly vague. Importantly, the court stated that the real intention of the law was not to protect public order but to punish homeless people and force them to use social services. As the court pointed out, the existence of homeless people in public space does not cause any damage to others and no one can be punished for not having a home. The court explicitly declared homelessness to be an issue that has to be solved through social, and not criminal, means. The Constitutional Court’s decision was a major victory for social professionals and grassroots groups that had protested against it since its inception.

The main proponents of previous anti-homeless legislation, including the mayor of the eighth district, the mayor of Budapest and the Minister of Interior, were quick to denounce the court’s decision. The ruling party promoted the message that, without the law, ‘masses of people will be living in public spaces again’ and that it would be impossible to prevent people from dying on the streets from hypothermia.

While the government’s denunciation of Constitutional Court’s decision was predictable, it was voiced by a new actor, the most powerful to date. Prime Minister Viktor Orban—who had not expressed an opinion about the topic before—immediately condemned the ruling, and announced that the prohibition of street homelessness would be included in the constitution (which the Court will not be able to override). Not long after, a modification to the constitution was introduced, which created the possibility for local municipalities to restrict living in public spaces. As Fidesz holds a two-thirds majority in Parliament, the modification, which also contained many other clauses that were previously deemed unconstitutional, was easily passed on 11 March 2013. On that date, Hungary became the first country in the world where the ability to criminalise homelessness is explicitly provided for in the highest law of the nation.

In October 2013, a national law was passed that declared all World Heritage sites homeless-free zones and authorised local municipalities to designate further such areas. In November, the municipality of Budapest passed a local ordinance that designated a significant part of Budapest a zone where homeless people can be charged with habitual residence in public space, and several other towns passed similar ordinances. By November 2014, such charges have been initiated in more than 300 cases against people who are forced to live on the streets as a result of failed of state policies. In all, by 2013, Hungary had returned to the high level of criminalisation that was prevalent under state socialism, but without the massive public investment in social infrastructure such as housing and employment.

Conclusion: criminalisation as a response to crisis

In the past decade, the overall pattern of state responses to homelessness was quite straightforward: while housing solutions to homelessness virtually disappeared and the social safety net was seriously damaged, criminal responses to housing poverty have gained significant strength. Before the capitalist transition, 50% of all residences in Budapest were in public ownership; today this proportion stands at around 6%. The disintegration of the welfare state is evident in the shrinking level of state responsibility for social reproduction, the gradual dismantling of the social safety net and the growing regulation of the poor through workfare and other means. The penal apparatus of the country has been expanded through legislation that turns social precariousness into criminality and the construction of prisons. Finally, public discourse is saturated by the myth of individual responsibility, the new spirit of the age succinctly captured by a ruling party MP: 'those who have nothing are worth just that much'

The penalisation of poverty and the criminalisation of homelessness are signals of a deep structural and political crisis. Today’s measures against poor and homeless people are not a reaction to specific social problems, but to the crisis of hegemony experienced by the Hungarian ruling elite. In order for the political and economic elite to ensure its dominance, it needs to engage in growing structural violence and repression. In other words, instead of addressing the root causes of inequality and poverty, the government is using the bodies of poor and marginalised people for both political and economic ends: to obscure the state’s failure to achieve the promises of the regime change, to secure its ongoing domination and to justify large-scale accumulation by dispossession.


Éva Tessza Udvarhely is a founding member of The City is for All (A Város Mindenkié) and has recently completed her doctorate. The above text is based on an excerpt from her book, Justice on the Streets, currently available in Hungarian as Az igazság az utcán hever. Válaszok a magyarországi lakhatási válságra (Napvilág Kiadó, 2014).

Top image: 'Members of Budapest based grassroots organization The City is for All in a direct action against a forced eviction' (2010), by balint.misetics.



Horváth, S. (2012) Két emelet boldogság. Mindennapi szociálpolitika Budapesten a Kádár-korban. Budapest: Napvilág Kiadó

Ladányi, J. (2010b) Szegények és cigányok Magyarországon a piacgazdaságba való átmenet időszakában. In Egyenlőtlenségek, redisztribúció, szociálpolitika. Válogatott tanulmányok (1975–2010). Budapest: Új Mandátum, 460–467.

Udvarhelyi, É. T. (2014) Az igazság az utcán hever. Válaszok a magyarországi lakhatási válságra. Budapest: Napvilág Kiadó

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