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A System to Keep Down and Outs in Their Place

László Murányi was never going to be a rocket scientist: even a career as gas heating fitter eluded him: he failed his technical school course after three years’ study. But he was prepared to work until he failed to pay a fine for a driving offence, and ended up in prison. He was homeless, jobless and more or less penniless on release.

That kind of experience leads many to depression, alcoholism, crime – and worse. Murányi however, is made of sterner stuff. He was down, but not out. “I accepted my situation, but was determined to get out of it,” he says.

He found a job – no easy matter with no permanent home address for the past six months except “prison” on a CV – and found assistance, via a tiny NGO. The From-Streets-to-Homes Association (Utcáról Lakásba Egyesület) believed in Murányi, and provided a bridging loan – worth HUF 200,000 – to lift him over the financial hurdle to renting his own flat.

Today, he is a productive member of society, earning between HUF 200,000 – 300,000 a month (“It depends on how much I work”), on which he and his employer pay taxes and all the various contributions.

László Murányi is off the streets and resolved to stay that way. Sadly, an estimated 30,000 others are less fortunate, living in shelters, stations, parks and shacks across Hungary. The shelters are typically ridden with bed bugs: personal valuables are at risk of theft. The shacks are unhealthy and illegal, as is sleeping in, or “habitually using”, any public place, according to punitive legislation passed by parliament this summer.

Affordable Housing Lacking

The Hungarian authorities are not alone in seeking to legislate their homeless co-citizens out of sight: some great western cities have pursued the same line. But life for the homeless Magyar is especially bleak because the lack of affordable housing makes the first step back to a normal life an insurmountable barrier for so many.

Government officials point to the public work program as a practical way to help, and instil a sense of worthiness to, the unemployed. Indeed, some participants have expressed enthusiasm for the scheme to your correspondent – but those have all had a home (however impoverished) to go back to at night. The monthly remittance for the homeless is, alone, utterly insufficient to offer any future off the streets.

The task is not easy: the homeless tend to be poorly educated. László Murányi himself says many have simply accepted their situation. Even activist (and some would say optimist) Vera Kovács, the leader of From-Streets-to-Homes, admits that to make it off the streets, at least one-third of the homeless would need “a lot of intensive social care”. That would need trained professionals, and money.

But, she argues, the taxpayers’ money that is spent on the issue – in subsidizing the shelters, and supporting the children who are separated from their parents and taken into care when families lose their homes – at best only maintains the status quo, and long-term, makes matters worse. The children in care, for example, are more likely to suffer psychological trauma – leading to more future caring costs.

In recognition of this, Kovács argues, it is for economic reasons, as much as moral, that many Western governments have enacted programs to help the homeless get a permanent roof over their heads – programs that are notable for their absence in Hungary.

Such programs need planning, take time and cost money, but pay off in the end. If in doubt, just ask László Murányi.