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?
To read the rest of the interview, click here.