Homeless in Hungary

From left to right:  Rob Robinson, Lynn Lewis and Brandon King of Picture the Homeless.

Members of the grassroots organization Picture the Homeless shared their experience from a 17-day trip to Budapest, Hungary and drew parallels between marginalized communities in Hungary and the United States at a September 8 evening panel held at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Picture the Homeless organizers Rob Robinson and Brandon King and executive director Lynn Lewis spoke about how they helped train homeless Hungarians and Romanis to organize politically, and pointed to global issues that homeless people around the world struggle with.

The panel discussion on their trip kicked off with introductory remarks by Maria Walles of Picture the Homeless and David Harvey, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and a prominent social theorist.  Throughout the presentation, pictures—some of them showing dilapidated living spaces or the street homeless—and video were shown, adding color to the activists’ remarks.

“The very same issues raised in Budapest and other places in Hungary are the same exact issues raised here in the U.S.,” said Lewis, referring to policing, housing, and the stigma attached to being homeless.

King said he saw enormous similarities between the situation of African-Americans and Roma people in Hungary.  The Roma are among the most oppressed members of society across Europe, and in Hungary, they have recently been the targets of a number of brutal hate crimes.

According to King, the Roma in Budapest specifically referred to themselves as "Gypsies," though some consider the term derogatory.

“There were stark similarities just in terms of the way Gypsy folks are treated and the way African-Americans are treated in the States,” said King, a civil rights organizer with Picture the Homeless.  “Though Gypsies represent a minority population within Hungary, more times that not you will see Gypsy folks as the ones who are homeless or the ones that are poor.”

But while parallels were easily drawn between oppressed communities in the U.S. and Hungary, stark differences remain.  For example, the panelists said that after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Hungary experienced economic hardship similar to that experienced by other Soviet satellites, pushing more people into poverty as the social safety net disappeared and government programs were privatized.  Lewis also spoke about the struggles the estimated 50,000 homeless people in Budapest face in obtaining social services because they lack an official address.

According to Lewis, the homeless in Hungary have to prove they have a registered address by showing the authorities a lease on a residence.  If homeless people in Budapest cannot produce that proof, Lewis said, they face obstacles ranging from a lack of employment opportunities to no access to a bank account.

“There, you’re not using your cousin’s address, or your girlfriend’s address.  It has to be your legal address, and you have to prove your address with a lease, or basically you don’t administratively exist,” she said.

When conducting workshops in Hungary, the homeless advocates said they taught the participants about how to do power analyses and how to speak to the media and in public, among other skills.

The panelists also spoke about an inspirational community they visited, named “Sherwood Forest,” that was located in the suburbs of Budapest.  The community is an autonomous enclave in the woods made up of homeless people who rejected the shelter system in Hungary, and they run and govern the dwelling themselves.

Lewis, King and Robinson had the opportunity to visit Budapest as a result of the efforts of two college students who had connections to Budapest and who helped obtain a grant for Picture the Homeless from Davis Projects for Peace, a philanthropic organization.

For Robinson, a housing organizer with the group, the 17-day trip wasn’t enough for him, and he said he would like to go back at one point.  While in Budapest, Robinson said, he tried to instill a sense of hope within some homeless Hungarians by telling his own story of climbing out of homelessness.

It was “an incredible experience for me, a life-changing experience, something that I will never forget,” he said.