Can we still call this a democracy if we criminalise people for being poor?
This week the first homeless person, a former engineer, was sentenced by a Hungarian court – for the crime of being homeless. Yes, to be homeless is a crime in Hungary. Living on the street was made an administrative offence by the government last week. According to the new law, the police have to force homeless people to leave any public place where they live. They can seize their belongings, and can even arrest and incarcerate them if they reoffend (which, for people living on the street, is fairly easy). The law is used to move homeless people out of city centres, out of the view of the public; to force them into crowded, dirty shelters or hiding and imprison them if they don’t comply.
It’s not enough to leave fellow citizens to rot on the street without any support to rebuild their homes and lives. They should be removed from sight, so as not to annoy “normal” citizens hurrying to their workplace in the morning. They should be disciplined, they should be reminded that they are second class citizens, unwanted and unwelcome – to deprive them of any trace of human dignity and to save “normal” people from facing the reality of poverty.
It’s hard to describe the anger and shame many of us Hungarians feel witnessing how our fellow countrymen are publicly humiliated, disciplined, robbed, and criminalised. Unfortunately there are more people who don’t care. And there are some who even feel some kind of relief or sadistic satisfaction. As Primo Levi said, monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.
According to a recent report, the prevalence of monthly illicit drug use is 8 times higher among homeless people than among the general population in Hungary. How can we even speak about effective outreach among these vulnerable people when now they have to hide not only for using drugs but because of being homeless too? There is no better example of how repressive laws are used by the rich to exclude and repress the poor, taking away their chances to change their lives.
There is much talk about the nature of the current political system in Hungary. Some people argue it is an illiberal, culturally adapted form of democracy. Well, one thing is sure: for the tens of thousands of homeless people this discussion is meaningless. Where homeless people are criminalised because they live on the street, how can they enjoy their political freedoms? How can they participate in political life in any meaningful way? If a democracy is not democracy for everybody, it is not a democracy at all.
Don’t degrade democracy by conflating it with the tyranny of the majority. “Majority”, when it is reproduced by mass manipulation systems, without a strong free press, is a myth, a fiction. It’s no democracy where individual rights are curtailed, where the freedom of association is restricted, where public resources are spent without any transparency and accountability, where systemic corruption becomes a system of corruption that concentrates all money, power, and information in the hands of a handful of oligarchs, living in unbelievable luxury while punishing people for being poor.