During the Communist period in East-Central Europe, when people talked about “homelessness,” they were speaking of a spiritual or political condition – of being in exile from their country of origin or feeling homeless in their own country because of the presence of Soviet troops. At that time, there were few people living on the street. Everyone had to have an address. Homelessness did not officially exist.
Today it’s another matter. For many of the same reasons that homelessness increased in the United States in the 1980s, the phenomenon has intensified in East-Central Europe. In Hungary, for instance, there are around 30,000 homeless people, many of them in Budapest. People sleeping in the underground entrances to the subway or bundled under street arcades are a common sight.
“The structural roots of homelessness are very much similar in Hungary and in the United States,” explains Hungarian activist Balint Misetics. “In this respect, the transition to free market capitalism in the early 1990s could be seen as a parallel to the neoliberalization of the U.S. state, and it is possible to identify similar structural processes behind the emergence of mass homelessness in the 1980s in the United States, and a decade later in Hungary.” There was also both deinstitutionalization (the release of people from institutional settings such as hospitals and treatment centers) and decriminalization of behaviors like “vagrancy” in the U.S. context and “unemployment” in Hungary under Communism, which previously had been used to put homeless people behind bars.
But, Misetics continued, “the most important factors are de-industrialization and the corresponding loss in stable, manufacturing jobs, considerable state withdrawal from housing policy, and the destruction of cheap intermediary housing forms for very low-income people, SROs in the United States, and workers’ hostels in Hungary.”
Misetics has been an activist since his teenage years. Now in his twenties, he has been deeply involved in the movement The City Is for All, which seeks to empower the homeless and address the structural roots of homelessness.
When he was younger, he had more of a service-oriented approach to the problem. He helped bring the homeless to the hospital if they were sick and raised money for more shelters. But now he takes a different approach.
“It’s like a game of musical chairs in which there are not enough chairs for everyone,” he told me in an interview in Budapest in May 2013. “We all run around, and the homeless are those who run around but when the music stops, there’s no chair for them. And people ask, ‘You didn’t get a chair so what’s wrong with you? Maybe you didn’t move fast enough? Maybe you did not pay attention?’ But those are the wrong questions. What really matters is there were not enough chairs. Most of the sociologists working on issues of homelessness and who are also involved in the shelter system have been concerned with the personal and social characteristics of the people who could not find a chair to sit on, whereas they should really be talking about why there are not enough chairs. Why is housing not affordable?”
The issue, in other words, is not just a matter of treating the symptom of homelessness but addressing the root cause in the overall crisis of housing and economic inequality in Hungary. Misetics told me that anywhere from 800,000 to 3 million people in the country live in substandard housing. That’s nearly one-third of the population.
“This is an estimate that groups together people who are strictly speaking homeless, who live in substandard housing, whose housing is overcrowded, who are indebted and in danger of losing their homes, and so on,” he explained. “It is a striking number, but you should also consider that by now, around 4 million people are estimated to live under the substance minimum as calculated by the central statistical office. This is very serious, even if the term “substance minimum” is misleading perhaps, because it does not refer to extreme poverty. If you use the definition of the European Union, for example, maybe 1.5 million are living in poverty in Hungary. But it’s calculated in different ways, so these numbers are hard to compare. Still, no matter what poverty indicator or threshold you use, poverty has been on the increase in Hungary in the past years.”
We talked about his views on militancy, how homeless activism connects to other political struggles in Hungary today, and why this kind of work can be traumatic over the long run.
Tell me how you first got involved in activism. Was there a moment when you were not an activist and then you were an activist? Or was it more gradual than that?
I think it was gradual. Already in high school, from time to time, I went to different demonstrations and protests and events. The earliest I remember was connected to something Tarlos Istvan said – he’s now the mayor of Budapest – that he essentially wanted to ban “homosexual” cultural programs at the Sziget Festival. And he also said that if he could he would really like to ban gay and lesbian people in general from Sziget, but since he couldn’t do, that at least he would ban these cultural programs. What was even more problematic is that the organizers of Sziget actually went along with this and made some changes in the program. So, there was a protest.
There was also one about recycling glasses for Pepsi and other sodas, organized by activists in Humusz.
It is the abbreviation of this working group around issues of trash. They poured thousands of these non-recyclable PT soda containers in front of the headquarters of Pepsi. I was around 14 at that point.
I also started to work on the issue of homelessness but initially as an ad hoc sort of social worker — talking a lot with homeless people and trying to help with whatever I could. I did this in a pretty intense way. I also organized some charity events in my high school. We played music before Christmas in the subway stations, and the money we collected we gave to the Shelter Foundation.
I also felt more and more that what needed to be done was something much more political, that you need to appeal to justice and rights as opposed to humanitarian concerns or the goodwill of the rich. There was a recently formed activist group that I joined, called People of the Street. We focused on homelessness and the right to housing. We organized sleep-outs in one of the major subway stations where a lot of homeless people had been living. The idea was to show that homelessness is not something that you can make invisible, which the authorities wanted to do. We decided to make it visible by going there to protest.
The first of these sleep-outs was the first event I joined. I arrived to the protest with these quotations from the Hungarian constitution saying that in Hungary every citizen has the right to social security. I asked them whether I could put those up. Then they invited me to join. That’s where I spent a lot of time in the following years, starting around 2005. I’d participated regularly in organizing meetings, and the people in that group saw the world very much like I did.
We’ve learned a lot about homelessness. Perhaps we also managed to make some progress in changing the public discourse on homelessness so that it would not be so focused on shelters. That’s one of the most problematic things about homelessness, this compulsive association between homeless people and shelters, as with sick people and hospitals or criminals and prisons.
We did occasionally protest together and work together with homeless people. But in the regular day-to-day activities of the activist group, no homeless people were involved. It was hard to sustain the group and the work we were doing in that group because one of the core members went to Sajókaza, which is in the northeast of Hungary. I’m not sure whether you’ve been there. The Jai Bhim Network, which is active there, is one of the most promising projects in Hungary with respect to poverty and the empowerment of the poor. Also, another core member and I went to study to the United States. So then it was difficult to sustain, which was very sad.
But it actually turned out to be a very good opportunity to rethink things and also to read about how organizing around issues of homelessness is done in other places, especially in the United States. I studied at Bard College, and my colleague, Tessza, she studied at the City University of New York. We met the community organization Picture the Homeless, which was founded and is led by homeless people. That’s where the idea came that we should do something like that as well in Hungary: we would not only work on behalf of homeless people but together with them.
We applied for some money from the Davis Project for Peace Foundation, which I could luckily do as a student at Bard. We got some money, so we invited four members of Picture the Homeless to hold workshops for Hungarian homeless people and possible allies, which was extremely successful. We also had doubts about the extent to which homeless people could be organized or whether such an organization could be sustained in the long run. But the initiative turned out to be quite successful, and that’s how our organization, The City Is for All, emerged from these workshops.
The very idea of people coming from abroad, and especially people coming from the United States, to teach organizing to homeless people was very inspiring for the homeless, who also shared many of the prejudices of the wider society about homeless people. In Hungary, the United States is still something big and exciting and rich for many, and perhaps especially for lower class people. The fact that these workshops were held by Americans was very empowering. It was also especially empowering to our Roma members because two of the trainers who came were African Americans. That’s how we started in 2009, and I have been participating in that since then.
And then there’s the current wave of protests, especially concerning the fourth amendment to the constitution, which is now called the “fundamental law”. The government wanted to emphasize how different the new constitution is, so now it’s not called a constitution anymore. These protests were the most intense political experience I’ve had.
And it was really a spontaneous movement, in the sense that it was not a long-term project in which we would meet regularly to organize a campaign, for example. It was extremely rapid and intense. We needed to do something within a few weeks. So we met almost everyday and organized either a civil disobedience action or a large protest twice every week. Our organizing meetings lasted until 3 and 4 am. It was also very open. We met in this place called Sirály, which is a community place/pub named after the bird seagull in Hungarian. It was a perfect place because it served as some sort of a center for this whole subculture. In that period, you didn’t need to come to an organizing meeting to end up in an organizing meeting. You just went there to have a beer with your friends, and then you saw a large group of people organizing around something that they think is really important, and then you just sit there and listen and then maybe you join in.
That group, which we came to refer to as the “constitution is not a game” group because that was our slogan, is still active. Now we are organizing a protest against segregation in public schools and also another event against a law that would empower the government to conduct surveillance on anyone who works in the state administration, without any suspicion. It would also empower the government to extend this surveillance to essentially anyone without any suspicion.
It is actually very hard now to organize because you’re always on the defensive, and also there’s just too many things going on. Sometimes they would vote five or six laws in a week, any one of which would cause a general strike in France or Germany. So then you need to decide which one to prioritize, so it’s really tiring.
When you were getting involved as a teenager, was this something that your family was enthusiastic about, or did you have conflicts with them?
They were supportive. I think they sometimes worried. But they didn’t need to worry that I would neglect my studies. They saw that I was doing something important that really interested me, so I think they were fine with that. Sometimes they worried, though, about the activism around homelessness and this face-to-face social work. It would often be emotionally hard. Also given the size of the problem in Budapest, it was a never-ending commitment. If you organize a protest you have certain tasks, some others have other tasks, you do it, and then it’s over. And then you can decide to do something else. But there are always other people sleeping on the street that you encounter while going home. Then it’s always a moral question whether you do something about it or not.
At that time I started to read Gandhi, which was important to me then for a different reason than it is important to me now, which is really the political philosophy of civil disobedience and non-violence. But then it was the moral consistency: if you think that something is not right, then you should do something about it. And homelessness is a situation that no one would argue is right. They’d never say it’s right for people to live on the street. The issue is that most do not engage with homeless people, do not do anything about it, or possibly do not even know what to do about it.
I started to think that if I believed it was wrong for people to be forced to live on the streets, then I had a personal responsibility to do something about it. That’s when it got pretty intense. I remember my grandmother saying to me something that was really the inverse of what grandmothers usually say to their teenager grandsons, I suppose — that I should be more concerned about girls and fun than such serious issues as homelessness. But even then, my family wasn’t hostile. When we needed a car to bring someone from the hospital to another place, or we needed the car to carry something to a protest, they always helped. They also visited our events from time to time. So I think that they handled it very well. They were very supportive, just sometimes worried.
And these worries were justified, because after a while it became extremely hard for me to deal with all the suffering that I’d seen while spending so much time with homeless people. Much of this work I did alone, as opposed to the activism where there’s a supportive community. I was also quite young, and without any education in social work. For a long time I don’t think my family noticed how hard it was for me, and I didn’t want to make them worry about it.
It was a traumatic experience. There’s this school of social psychology research, the “just world theory,” which argues that humans have a very strong psychological stake in perceiving the world as orderly and just. That’s why, when something outrageous happens, they tend to blame the victim — so that they can maintain this general perception of an essentially just and orderly world. But really the theory is about why people utilize these techniques to maintain their equilibrium.
I suppose what happened to me is that, in a very deep sense, I completely lost this perception of the world as a just place. I suppose I had this very strong experience of something being obviously wrong but no one seems to care or take notice of it. No one seems to do anything, and therefore I should. I couldn’t just think that somebody else would take care of it, as after all this is a big city, because I had the opposite experience with homeless people living on the street. .
In the United States, homelessness emerged after the triple storm of the 1980s of deinstitutionalization, the social cuts of Reaganomics, and the decline of affordable housing like the SROs (single room occupancies) in cities. Did something similar happen here in Hungary? Homelessness did not really exist when I was here in 1990.
In fact, the structural roots of homelessness are very much similar in Hungary and in the United States.
In this respect, the transition to free market capitalism in the early 1990s could be seen as a parallel to the neoliberalization of the U.S. state, and it is possible to identify similar structural processes behind the emergence of mass homelessness in the 1980s in the United States, and a decade later in Hungary. You refer to de-institutionalization, which is another parallel with the Hungarian case, and you could also mention the decriminalization of certain behaviors — “vagrancy” in the United States and “unemployment” in Hungary in that period – which were earlier used to put homeless people behind bars.
But I don’t think that either of those was very important. The most important factors are de-industrialization and the corresponding loss in stable, manufacturing jobs, considerable state withdrawal from housing policy, and the destruction of cheap intermediary housing forms for very low-income people, SROs in the United States, and workers’ hostels in Hungary. The de-industrialization that’s pretty obvious already in the U.S. case, and is even more obvious in the Hungarian case, which is really just a more radical version because of the overemphasis put on heavy industry before the transition. The changes were more radical in magnitude as well as in terms of speed, because all the previously repressed processes broke free at once with the transition. This is also verified by sociological surveys from the early 1990s, which found that workers who would otherwise still be working in these factories were overrepresented among the homeless. So that’s the first cause.
The second cause is the decrease in social protection, especially concerning housing. And by social protection, I also mean a political commitment to full employment. Obviously if there is full employment then you need less social policy to alleviate poverty. Concerning housing policy, there was actually a radical retreat from the state commitment to provide housing. That was true also in the United States, because one of the most important victims of Reaganism was the federal state’s commitment to housing. Also in Hungary, where almost the entire public housing stock was privatized, the governmental housing construction programs were also stopped, and the price of utilities were liberalized. Finally, the parallel institution to the SROs is munkasszallo, which is a workers’ hostel. Many of those who became homeless pretty rapidly in the early 1990s or were already in the late 1980s actually were previous residents of these workers’ hostels, which provided somewhat poorer conditions than SROs, and their numbers decreased rapidly in the period, just as the SROs did earlier in the United States.
If you look at surveys on what people think is the cause of homelessness, in Western Europe people tend to emphasize structural factors such as poverty, social inequalities, and lack of social provisions. In the United States, on the other hand, people are more likely to emphasize personal factors such has whether people are alcoholics or drug addicts. The paradox is that it’s really the other way around. In those Western European states in which you have both extensive housing policies and general social provisions, it is hard to become homeless so you really need to have other problems besides extreme poverty to become homeless, such as alcoholism or drug addiction. Or you’re more likely to be homeless if you’re an immigrant. It’s really the opposite in the United States where it is very easy to be homeless without having any of these additional issues. Hungary is more like the United States in this respect.
The City Is for All is an interesting coalition of homeless people and non-homeless people. By non-homeless people we really mean young social scientists who study social policy or social anthropology. Some of us went to the United States to study and we are more likely to speak good English than good French or good German. In terms of understanding and criticizing criminalization, we also benefited from American literature – again, that’s because criminalization of homelessness is much more widespread and brutal in the United States than anywhere else in the Western world. Concerning solutions, however, it is more likely that we will refer to Western European housing policies.
Have there been any significant differences in the approach to homeless questions by prior governments here in Hungary, or were they basically all the same and it’s just a matter of degree?
In many important respects they were the same, especially concerning social housing, or what in the United States is more likely to be called public housing. It is important to note, though, that in Western Europe, public housing does not have the stigmatized or pejorative connotation it has in the United States. It is totally fine to live in public housing, even for lower middle class people, especially in the Netherlands, or young middle class people, for example. It’s not at all stigmatized. I imagine it’s so hard to fight for public housing in the States because it’s like as if you’re fighting for ghettos. In any case, with respect to public housing here in Hungary there was essentially no difference in policy. Only the so-called Socialist Party made commitments to expand public housing prior to the elections, but then they ended up doing nothing, just like the other party. So in that respect, there was no difference.
There was some difference in that the Hungarian government wasted a huge amount of money, and by that I mean hundreds of billions of forints, on tax benefits and subsidies for people with mortgages. Later it was shown that two-thirds of the money spent went to the upper one-fifth of Hungarian society. In the same period, only a small fraction of that was spent on housing allowance, which went to the poorest one-tenth of Hungarian society. That policy was initiated by Fidesz before the 2002 elections. It would most likely not have been initiated by the Socialist party, even though later they were reluctant to change that policy for political reasons. It was only when the policy became financially unsustainable that they changed it.
In terms of criminalization, there have been important differences, even though homeless people were harassed by the police and other authorities earlier as well. There was also selective law enforcement, also in the time of Budapest’s liberal mayor Gabor Demszky, who you might have interviewed 23 years ago.
I didn’t, but I certainly know who he is.
He started out as a leftist sociologist working on issues of poverty and housing also. As a mayor, however, he also tried to make homeless people invisible before the local authority elections. And there were cases in which the authorities attempted to evict homeless people living in shacks, sometimes in the winter, and that was also done by mayors on the so-called Left. Or people living in subway stations had their belongings taken as if they were just trash.
Those things are some of the issues we addressed with my previous activist group, People on the Street. The first protest we had with The City Is for All was against a so-called Socialist mayor in the 11th district who campaigned with the slogan of “homeless-free zones.” We were outraged by that. But one and a half years later that slogan became government policy. And in that respect there is a very important difference. Now we are not talking about local initiatives or something happening outside the law or against the law. Now they have made the criminalization of homelessness the law. If that is declared unconstitutional by the constitutional court, then the ruling party puts it in the constitution, which is pretty insane and definitely not something we would have thought about before. So in that respect there is a huge difference between the Socialist Party and Fidesz. There are also smaller parties, especially LMP (Politics Can Be Different) and PM (Dialogue for Hungary), both of which I have been involved in. These parties are very progressive in terms of housing policy and criminalization, but they are also very small.
The shelters in the United States are inadequate and often dangerous. Is that the same situation here with shelters? And what social services are available for the homeless? Are they reluctant to take advantage of them, or is it a case-by-case, district-by-district situation?
There is a pretty extensive system of homeless shelters here that emerged in the past 20 years. We have overnight shelters and temporary shelters in which you can also stay in the daytime, you don’t have to stand in line for your bed every evening, and you don’t need to leave early in the morning. For this you need to pay a monthly fee though. We also have daytime centers and social work outreach. There’s an important difference with the United States because in Hungary all of this is funded by the state. So, if you have an organization, let’s say a Quaker church in Budapest, and you decide to run a shelter, then you get, on a bed-to-bed basis, the same amount of money the local authority would get for a shelter. In fact, because of the so-called Vatican treaty, you actually get much more if you are a Church institution, which is very problematic, but that’s another story.
They get more in terms of the actual provision, or they get more because of tax exemptions?
They get more money from the state because the assumption is that the local authority institutions get money from the central state, as well as from the local authority, so then Church or faith-based organizations need to get more money from the central state. That is also one of the reasons why mock churches or pseudo-churches were initiated in the field of social service provision – only for the sake of getting this extra funding. This is, of course, problematic, but it’s also reasonable in the sense that the money you would otherwise get without getting additional funding is simply not enough to provide anything that could be called adequate. There is also discrimination in it, as non-religious NGOs do not get this additional funding, which is a sizable contribution. [Since then, the government can decide whether a faith based organization classifies as a “church” or not — and this status has only been granted to a minority of genuine religious communities. The rest can therefore no longer rely on additional funding from the state to finance their schools or welfare institutions.]
But still, in terms of its basic idea, it’s a pretty progressive system in comparison to the United States. Take for example outreach work. Here it’s not like in many cities in the United States where there’s maybe one organization that would organize outreach work. Here there has to to be street social work in every single district funded in an equal manner by the state along with all sorts of quality and formal requirements that you need to fulfill.
What is the issue, though, is that there are no exit options from the shelter system. So you can spend years, long years, in the shelter system without getting any real opportunity to get out. It’s also pretty expensive, actually, to keep people in institutions. If only half or even a quarter of the money that the government spent on a homeless person was just given directly to those people to find an apartment to rent, many of them could afford rent. But, of course, then you wouldn’t need to give money just to those 8-10,000 people currently living in shelters but also to the 1.5 million people who lack adequate housing, or to the 2.5 million people who have arrears on utility bills, and that would cost much more money of course.. And what they do give to this broader segment of the poor is very small. It’s like 2-5,000 forints a month, which is about the amount of money we’re going to pay here at this restaurant.
There are a lot of people who would not need to be in the homeless shelter system at all if they could get a reasonable housing allowance. And that’s related to the fact that there are a lot of people not in the shelter system but living on the streets who definitely would need the most help because they have other issues besides not having a home, either alcoholism or health issues or mental health issues. But it’s really those most in need of shelter provision that are deemed inadequate or incapable of living in shelters, and that’s why there are thousands of people living on the street.
And, of course, these shelters can be dangerous. But that’s not the worst thing about them because the street can also be dangerous. The more important thing is that the rules of the shelter infantilize people. Not just the rules but also of course the spatial situation in which you have anywhere from four to 80 people in one room in these dormitory-style shelters. There’s no privacy at all. Then there are also some people who are alcoholics, and they’re not allowed to drink in the shelters. But then you end up having those people who would be most in need of institutional residency and help still on the street and possibly dying in the winter. You’re also more likely to die because of the cold if you drink. So this is the situation with shelters.
A lot of homeless people are involved in public work programs, in workfare programs. First of all, all empirical studies showed that participation in these programs do not help people to get back to the labor market. But if we set this aside for a moment, the issue with workfare, as well as with the underpaid manual labor that these people might have access to, is that they cannot afford rent from that money. And this is especially the case now when people in public work or workfare projects are not entitled to the minimum wage anymore. For temporary shelters you need to pay. If you look at those people, around half of them are working. They need to have a regular income to be eligible for these shelters. Others have retirement income – but it’s so low that they cannot afford independent housing. We have a few institutions that are like SROs, and those are always full. I don’t think that you could call those adequate housing, but at least it’s much better in terms of privacy and autonomy than the shelters.
There’s a huge gap between the shelters and the private sector. Hungary is one of the countries in which the proportion of owner-occupied housing is the highest. It’s interesting to read American literature still arguing that the more people live in their own house the better – that’s completely the opposite of the discussion here. Housing policy experts here focus on employment, arguing that you cannot move from one place to another to find a job if you cannot sell your home. And you can’t, because the private rental sector is so insecure and so small. So it would be all the more important to have a public housing sector. But that’s also very small. For example, in the 8th district where I live, from 2011 to 2013, there were only nine flat openings. And there were 1,400 applications for those nine flats! Of course, most of the people in need of that housing would not even apply because they don’t believe it’s possible to get it or they don’t know how to apply for it. But that still shows you the incapability of the Hungarian public housing system to cater to the needs of people.
Is it largely a problem for Budapest, or is it also a phenomenon in other cities?
It’s in Budapest where most homeless people live, that’s obvious. But also over half of the people living on the streets are living in other places. And there are several large towns in Hungary in which there are more people living on the street than in shelters, which is the opposite in Budapest where there are around 6,000 people living in shelters and around 2-3,000 in the winter living on the streets. Then there are larger towns in which you don’t have shelters for women, only for men. So homelessness is most prevalent here in Budapest, but also the homeless shelter system is more developed here. In terms of the rural areas, it depends on what you call homelessness because people living in segregated settlements, like many Roma people do, do not live in conditions much better than some of the homeless people who build their own shacks in Budapest or live in one of the better shelters. No running water is a very rural problem but even here in Budapest, especially in the 8th district, there are still a lot of people living without running water, but people do not think of that as homelessness. If you think of homelessness in a very strict sense, there are about 30,000 people, around half of whom live in Budapest. But if you think of homelessness according to a broader definition, then you’d end up with numbers 800,000 or even up to 3 million.
Three million people living in substandard housing? That’s 30% of the population!
Well, this is an estimate that groups together people who are strictly speaking homeless, who live in substandard housing, whose housing is overcrowded, who are indebted and in danger of losing their homes, and so on. It is a striking number, but you should also consider that by now, around 4 million people are estimated to live under the substance minimum as calculated by the central statistical office. This is very serious, even if the term “substance minimum” is misleading perhaps, because it does not refer to extreme poverty. If you use the definition of the European Union, for example, maybe 1.5 million are living in poverty in Hungary. But it’s calculated in different ways, so these numbers are hard to compare. Still, no matter what poverty indicator or threshold you use, poverty has been on the increase in Hungary in the past years.
Are there substantial differences of opinion among homeless folks themselves about what the priorities are in terms of demand? Or is there pretty much a consensus?
In terms of housing policy, there is essentially a consensus among those working around issues of housing either as experts or activists, including the homeless activists in our group. Our demands also seem to resonate among homeless people in general, though many would also think that they are unrealistic. There is an important difference however between our approach and the approach of those running the shelters. We are much more critical of the shelter system. From time to time we would defend the shelter system from cuts, but we would not argue for the expansion of it. Some people who run shelters, would also argue for egalitarian housing policies so that there would be less need for homeless shelters. So while sometimes there are critical voices coming from these circles as well, it is nonetheless true that it is easier to cast aside the housing agenda if there is an extensive system of shelters, and that a lot of people and organizations are interested in the current situation.
In the short run, of course, you do need shelters, simply to save people’s lives. But in The City Is for All we are very critical of shelters as the dominant response to homelessness, and we continue to demand housing instead of shelters. We also try to connect the issue of housing with our anti-criminalization campaign. Of course it can make you seem politically obstinate if you appear to be are defending people’s rights to live on the street. Our most important slogan in that campaign is “housing not harassment.” So even when we are talking about criminalization, we talk about housing, and we rely very much on the documents produced by housing policy experts.
Earlier you told me that there’s a lot of unused housing in Hungary. What is the calculation of how much existing housing can be used versus how much traditional housing units need to be built to accommodate both the homeless population but also the folks living in sub-standard housing?
There are indeed a lot of vacant flats. The current situation is not like after a war when you physically do not have enough housing. The current issue is one of affordability. There are flats in which people could live, but they cannot afford to live there. In a hypothetical free market scenario, the issue would solve itself because then the price would go down. But housing is a special commodity. We make demands about the utilization of vacant flats as social housing units, because that could be something that many homeless people could afford. But I think that discussions about empty flats sometime miss the point. There are many people who would not be able to afford adequate housing even if they were allowed to move into a vacant flat without rent, simply because they would still not be able to buy enough food and still pay for the utilities as well. On the other hand, if you have enough money, you will find someone who will rent his or her apartment for you. Housing affordability is the broader issue, which is essentially about the gap between incomes and the cost of living in general, and housing costs in particular. For example, in purchasing power parity, Hungarian household energy prices are among the highest in Europe.
Homelessness is a structural problem. It’s like a game of musical chairs in which there are not enough chairs for everyone. We all run around, and the homeless are those who run around but when the music stops, there’s no chair for them. And people ask, “You didn’t get a chair so what’s wrong with you? Maybe you didn’t move fast enough? Maybe you did not pay attention?” But those are the wrong questions. What really matters is there were not enough chairs. Most of the sociologists working on issues of homelessness and who are also involved in the shelter system have been concerned with the personal and social characteristics of the people who could not find a chair to sit on, whereas they should really be talking about why there are not enough chairs. Why is housing not affordable?
That’s what we try to do to a large degree: to bring to the surface homelessness as a structural issue instead of one of personal choice or personal deficiencies. We also try to politicize the issue of homelessness, to get it out not only from the discourse of blame but also to get it out from the discourse of charity. We don’t focus on ad hoc solutions such as “why don’t you bring some tea or some soup when it’s cold” or “why don’t you open the abandoned Soviet military barracks for homeless people?” That’s not how it works. To put it simply, if you want this to be a society in which everyone has a place to live, you need either higher incomes or extensive housing policies that make up for the gap between income and housing costs.
What are the parameters of change possible given the current political circumstances? This is, after all, a pretty unresponsive government. The other side of the coin is about political agency. A really important aspect of your work, as you said, is for the homeless themselves to be in charge of their own struggle. Do you think that can have a ripple effect on society in terms of empowering other Hungarians to take action?
In terms of the prospects for change, they are pretty thin. One thing is that it becomes really hard to fight for any single political cause, like immigration rights or homelessness or domestic violence in a society where the very foundations of constitutional democracy is being destroyed, and where the governing party is gradually colonizing most spheres of the society. We have very few allies left, and they are very weak. It’s not like in the Civil Rights movement where you could do grassroots organizing and provoke the federal government to do action and where you also had the constitutional court as a major ally. Here, whom do we have as an ally? The constitutional court has less and less power, and it is also filled with people without much knowledge of constitutional law but with much loyalty to the governing party. And the government can change the constitution anytime they want..
Also, there’s the European Union, but that’s extremely weak. The European Union not only pushes a constitutional democracy agenda, but also economic austerity measures. It’s also biased toward issues of concern for the middle classes. Just compare the amount of worry expressed by the EU about the early retirement of judges, which is of course an issue, compared with the amount of worry expressed when Hungary essentially criminalized the poorest of its citizens. The EU essentially said nothing, not even the Fundamental Rights Agency, even though it would have been a politically easy choice since it wouldn’t have had as serious political repercussions as when the European Commission says something.
The other part of the story is that the pre-2010 establishment was also had a serious deficit of legitimacy. It was not seen by many as an establishment worth fighting for. And they had very good reasons to feel that way. That establishment was corrupt. It was unable to increase the level of employment, which is one of the lowest in the EU. It was unable to provide income security for millions of Hungarians. I’m not talking just about extreme poverty, but about the fact that many of those who were not strictly speaking poor could not enjoy stable livelihoods, because they felt in constant danger of losing their jobs, not being able to pay their housings costs, etc. So that was what the previous system was like, and the most prominent opposition parties are identified with that system. So there just does not seem to be an alternative to the current establishment.
There’s the Hungarian Socialist Party. And then you have these other parties like the Democratic Coalition (DK), which is also like the Hungarian Socialist Party – it’s run by a former Socialist and former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. But then you also had what seemed to be a large social movement. I’m referring to Milla, the One Million for the Freedom of the Press in Hungary group, which initially organized most of the large demonstrations. This was then taken up by the student movement and now more recently by our sit-in at the Fidesz headquarters and the subsequent pro-democracy protests.
Since than, Milla essentially merged into the Together 2014 coalition. Milla started out as what seemed to be an anti-establishment movement, which had slogans like “I don’t like this system” or “a change of era instead of a change of government.” And they initially didn’t allow any politicians on the stage, not even from parties like LMP [Politics Can Be Different], which was much more like them in many respects than the other parties. And then they decided to have as their leader Gordon Bajnai, the former Socialist prime minister, technocrat, and neo-liberal politician — in any case, that’s how he looks like. And now outside of LMP, which is, unfortunately, still very small, the opposition side is still dominated by the same people as before: you have the MSZP [the Hungarian Socialist Party] and two other parties run by ex-prime ministers of the same party. And that is very unfortunate. There was an opportunity to have something else, and that opportunity was missed.
The more structural issue is that Hungary civic education in the public school system is extremely limited. The amount of unnecessary scientific knowledge that is forced into Hungarian students’ heads is unimaginable.
Also the public media and much of the private media is under the direct or indirect supervision of the governing party. By this I not only mean it’s biased towards the right-wing government, which is not surprising. But it is unimaginable to what extent the public media is direct propaganda. It is really unprecedented. It is really as it was before the transition. It is enormously difficult to talk to those people who are not already readers of liberal dailies and news portals, and there are not that many of them.
Also the trade union movement is extremely weak. It has always been weak since the transition, and now it is also corrupt. The Hungarian government just passed a new act one and a half years ago on labor law, which entailed a radical curtailment of labor rights. There was no strike. There was maybe one demonstration, but it wasn’t large. The current length of insurance-based unemployment – three months — is the lowest in the whole of Europe — even though you need more than a year, on average, to find another job. There were no protests about this, either. I could go on, but I don’t want to get into details.
So for all these reasons, it is very hard to mobilize masses. A possible answer is to organize more militant actions. “Militant” is a somewhat striking term in Hungarian language but I believe in the United States the practice of Wendell Phillips or Martin Luther King, for example, is sometimes referred to as militancy. This is what I mean: non-violent but non-conventional political action. Through organizing direct actions such as civil disobedience, you can try to disrupt the political process without mobilizing tens of thousands of people. On the other hand, it can also be a way of raising awareness over injustice and bring more people to the streets.
It’s interesting to read what liberal political philosopher John Rawls had to say about civil disobedience. He has a few chapters on civil disobedience in his A Theory of Justice. He argues that civil disobedience can only be an effective political instrument in a society where there is a reasonable consensus over fundamental political questions. In our case, this would mean more concretely both the knowledge of, and support for the principles of constitutional democracy. That is obviously absent here in Hungary: both the knowledge element — that we have a practical knowledge about what constitutional democracy is and why it matters — and also in terms of support. Rawls argues that since civil disobedience is really an appeal to these mutually cherished fundamental political principles, when these principles are deemed to be violated by something that the government does, it cannot be effective in a society in which there is significant disagreement even with respect to the most fundamental questions of justice and politics, and that is exactly the Hungarian case.
But it is not only in terms of fundamental political ideas that this society has split into more or less distinct parts. It’s also in terms of their perception of reality. With the civil disobedience that took place at the Fidesz headquarters, if you read the right-wing newspapers, you would think it was done violently by disorderly young people incited and paid by George Soros or ex-prime minister Gordon Bajnai. But if you read the liberal newspapers, you would think that we were these heroic non-violent activists, the last hope of Hungarian democracy. There’s no dialogue between these two realities. There are essentially no conservatives who would speak out against the government. But there are no liberals either who would argue against our action, for example, because they agree with our goals but not with our methods. You fall into either this category or that category, at least as far as the public discourse is concerned.
So, I suppose our only hope in this respect, even though the pre-condition for the successful use of civil disobedience would be an overlapping consensus about the most important issues of justice and constitutional democracy, is that civil disobedience can nonetheless be a facilitator of creating such a consensus by making it clear that constitutional democracy is important. It’s not some abstract thing for lawyers in strange dresses at the constitutional court. It is about Hungarians; it is about Hungary.
Your other question was about political agency. The City Is for All is very important because it proves that it is possible to empower some of the most excluded, most oppressed people. So it supports the principle of political inclusion with a group that seem to be the most difficult case. That is very powerful. One of our former members is organizing the participants of workfare programs, which is also very inspiring.
The 2014 elections will be very important, and if the opposition can win, maybe we could set ourselves more ambitious goals than protecting a constitutional system or a welfare state that we found unsatisfactory to begin with. But we are very much aware that what we are capable of doing is extremely small if you compare it to how big our troubles are. Our reach is seriously limited geographically, politically, and also in terms of class. But every other week there’s something outrageous that is impossible morally to ignore and which already takes all your time to address. It would be essential, for example, to have a stronger trade union movement and to connect it to the activist subculture in Budapest. But we are from a very different political culture. There is essentially no dialogue.
But I’m sure that the experience of organizing and participating in these recent protests will be formative for a lot of us Anna Kéthly was a social democratic politician, first between the two world wars and again, after years of emigration, briefly in the 1956 revolution. She spoke about democracy without democratic experience. We also had a democracy here, formally, but without democratic experience, and this is an important part of why it has been this easy to abolish constitutional democracy after 2010. Therefore, I think that the democratic experience of taking part in these protests is worthwhile in itself, even if in the short run these protests cannot effectively challenge the government.
With the demise of the Third Hungarian Republic and with the demise of liberalism as it was understood in the last 20 years, we also have the opportunity to rethink how a constitutional democracy interacts with an unjust society. What happens with the institutions of formal democracy without democratic experience? It is an opportunity to rethink what kind of society we really want and, once we regain our constitutional democracy, how not to make the very same mistakes again.
Budapest, May 14, 2013