the sight of homeless men and women huddled on street corners amid the majesty of majestic, domed palaces, shivering under old blankets and cardboard boxes, would be unwelcome in any civilised society.
But in Hungary, right-wing premier Viktor Orban is more concerned that the world does not see the scale of his country’s housing problems as it manifests itself in the ancient capital, Budapest.
Indeed, if Mr Orban has his way, homeless people could be fined and even jailed for sleeping outside – even though some of Hungary’s homeless shelters are already overflowing and short of beds.
Mr Orban’s ideas for dealing with homelessness have set him up for his latest clash with the constitutional court and civil rights groups. Mr Orban, critics say, is carrying out an informal referendum at town hall meetings to gauge support for a constitutional amendment that would enshrine punishments for the homeless.
Hungary’s homeless policy has revived accusations by human rights groups that Mr Orban’s ruling Fidesz party cares little about the disadvantaged. In just one recent controversy, one of the party’s founding members, journalist Zsolt Bayer wrote in a newspaper column that many of Hungary’s Roma gypsies “are animals” and “unfit for coexistence.”
Fidesz refused to distance itself from the column, saying it understood citizens’ anger about crimes committed by Roma.
The homeless issue has been brewing for years. At the end of 2011, Fidesz used its big parliamentary majority to apply punitive regulations, first introduced earlier that year by the Fidesz-backed mayor of Budapest, nationwide. They included fines for repeat offenders and the threat of up to 60 days in jail.
“This is a method to demoralise or intimidate us,” said Gyula Balog, 53, who has been homeless for nearly 20 years. “No-one was jailed but quite a few had to pay fines. It’s frivolous to fine those who have nothing.”
At the time, the United Nations warned the obligation to provide shelter “cannot serve as an excuse for the criminalisation or forced detention of homeless persons”.
“By a wave of the legislative pen, the Hungarian Parliament has labelled tens of thousands of homeless people in Hungary as potential criminals,” said a statement from two UN human rights experts. “Moreover, the law has a discriminatory impact on those living in poverty.”
At least 1,500 homeless people are believed to be living rough in Budapest. Temperatures are expected to remain below freezing in coming days and dozens of homeless are found frozen to death each year on the streets.
Authorities recently inaugurated two more shelters in the capital and the government spent £24 million on the homeless in 2012, with a similar figure planned this year. But some of the most popular refuges, like the “Heated Street” run by the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood, are already packed.
In November the constitutional court ruled fines should not be used to deal with a social issue as if it were a criminal matter.
There are no exact figures on the number of homeless in Hungary, but the UN last year put the figure at between 30,000 and 35,000. A survey carried out each year in February in Budapest and the larger Hungarian cities by NGOs, counted 8,641 in 2012, up from 7,199 in 2011. The Hungarian government argues it is acting out of concern for homeless people who freeze to death every year, implying that fines are meant to push the displaced into warm shelters.
“There are more places in heated shelters than homeless in Hungary,” Mr Orban said last month in parliament. “So no-one … is forced to survive winter under the open sky.”
But social workers and the homeless accuse the government of caring only about the country’s image.
“They simply want to clean up the areas frequented by tourists,” said Mr Balog, on the streets after losing his job and family through alcoholism.