Down and out in Buda and Pest as Hungary's homeless freeze


In Hungary the early onset of winter has already claimed 11 lives. Those most exposed to the elements and the hardships of the winter to come are of course the homeless. To help the many thousands of people without a roof over their head - telephone hotlines have been set up across the country. They are collecting reports on the whereabouts of the needy and send social workers where possible. Petra Hajdu reports.

Photo: European Commission
According to estimations, there are about 30,000 to 35,000 people living on the street in Hungary, while the number of beds in homeless shelters barely reaches 8,000. While more than two thirds, that is about 20,000 live in the capital, the country's one and only homeless hotline in Budapest has by now become unable to assist and handle all incoming phone calls of private people reporting yet another unfortunate soul close to catching his death in the cold without a blanket. To improve the situation, six new regional telephone services were set up in the country hoping to save more people from freezing and ease their torments. Boroka Fehér of the Hungarian Maltese Charity service, an advocate of the cause, thinks there is hope for better results:

"We are quite optimistic. We hope that the public is going to take more notice of the problem of homelessness and if somebody seems a homeless person lying in front of their house or in a public park then they can call this hot-line and the hot-line is going to send social workers there and they are going to talk to him or her and see if they are willing to go into a shelter, to see if they have needs, to see if they just want extra blankets."

The stereotype image of the urban homeless person is a dirty, bearded man sitting at the subway station with blankets around and a bottle of alcohol in his hand. However, the media is filled with reports on single mothers and their children who are put out on the street due to their financial difficulties from one day to the other all around the country. Initially, many of them have no idea what to do or where to go:

"There are shelters for single families, there are shelters for single mothers with children and they are full even in the summer. It could be that a mother from Budapest is only offered a place in another town, for example, so it's not too optimistic. For a single night often hostels which would usually be welcoming men, would be letting in a whole family so that they don't freeze. But even family health centres, and hospitals, I think every organisation is trying to help if they find a family on the street, trying to put them somewhere, but it is not where they belong."

Although the only alternative for them is to sleep on the street or outdoors anyway, many of the homeless will choose this option rather than sleeping in a homeless shelter. They are afraid, perhaps based on experience, of their even their pitiful belongings getting stolen, being exposed to violence or simply the hygienic circumstances. Boróka Fehér says the latter one is, in fact, no longer much of a problem. Defining who counts as a homeless person at all, however, is:

"There are street social workers whose job it is on the one hand to go to addresses that they receive through these phone lines and on the other hand to go and locate homeless people that nobody knows about. The problem is there are not enough street social workers and Budapest is very big."

However heroic their fight maybe, the NGO's struggling with the phenomena of homelessness are just a temporary cure to the problem. Without greater care from the state and more help from society at large the number of people without a shelter threatens to dramatically increase in Hungary by next year.