AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
To Hungary now, where a fight is brewing over the homeless. Hungary has Europe's toughest vagrancy laws and they just got stronger. Police are now able to jail and fine those who sleep on the streets. As Hungary wrestles with a deep financial crisis, these new laws effectively criminalize homelessness.
And as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Budapest, the impoverished and their advocates are fighting back.
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ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: A group of disheveled older men in shabby bathrobes shuffle into the infirmary eating area for lunch at the Danko street homeless shelter, one of Budapest's largest. The pungent stench of men whose bodies and clothes need washing mix with the smell of urine and fumes from some kind of industrial cleaner.
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WESTERVELT: If you call the Danko street shelter home, chances are you are truly destitute. And the down and out these days are increasing in number in Hungary due to the nation's financial crisis. The country's currency, the forint, has fallen sharply against the euro. Personal debt has soared. It's estimated there are more than 10,000 homeless on the streets and in the shelters here in the capital alone and twice that many again across the nation.
In this shelter's cramped, barrack-like sleeping area, homeless men and women spread out on thin mattresses on metal bunk beds. Others talk or play cards. A young man approaches eagerly.
ZOLTAN SZARKA: (Foreign language spoken)
WESTERVELT: Twenty-seven-year old Zoltan Szarka. He says he's been in and out of foster care all his life, and on his own and mostly out of luck since he turned 18. He's called this shelter home for the last three and a half months.
SZARKA: (Through translator) My parents abandoned me at the hospital when I was a baby. I don't know anything about them.
WESTERVELT: Szarka says he lost his job at an amusement park, and then as a day laborer. In winter, he says, his construction company boss simply refused to pay him.
SZARKA: (Through translator) And then I couldn't pay my rent. And I tried to find another job, I tried a lot. But I couldn't find anything. So my landlord had enough and kicked me out. And there was nobody there to help me. I don't have a family to lean on.
WESTERVELT: Lately, Szarka's rough life has been made even harder by an increase in police harassment. That's because under a mix of local and national laws, homeless on the street in Hungary now risk steep fines and more.
At a cafe near the shelter, I meet Tessza Udwarhelyi, a Budapest community organizer and co-founder of the group A City for All.
TESSZA UDWARHELYI: The new law, which I think is unique in Europe and the only one of its kind in Europe that makes sleeping on the street a crime that's punishable by jail.
WESTERVELT: Budapest banned sleeping on the streets and a new federal law allows police to fine homeless or arrest them if they've been cited for sleeping on the street twice in a six-month period. In recent years, several districts in Budapest made it illegal to rummage through garbage, to beg on the streets. And local politicians created so-called homeless-free zones.
Udwarhelyi says the current conservative government has cracked down even harder. It seems to think people are sleeping on the street by choice.
UDWARHELYI: Tens of thousands of people are not choosing to sleep on the streets. They are sleeping on the streets because there is nowhere else to go, and the state does not take the measures that are necessary to provide housing for everyone - or some kind of, at least, transitional shelter.
WESTERVELT: Budapest police and city authorities refused to give statistics on the number of homeless who've faced fines up to the equivalent of $650. A City for All estimates that at least 300 homeless have been fined so far. No homeless, as yet, have been arrested.
Sixty-one-year-old Pastor Gabor Ivanyi, who runs this shelter, says obviously the homeless can't afford to pay the fines. He charges that conservative Prime Minister Victor Orban has substituted harassing the underprivileged for creating a viable housing strategy.
PASTOR GABOR IVANYI: (Foreign language spoken)
WESTERVELT: What Orban wants is to get rid of the poor, and everybody who deals with the poor is seen as an opponent, Pastor Ivanyi says, adding: the police permanently bully the homeless. This is not the solution of a civilized or Christian state, he says, when security personnel drive around and hunt the homeless.
Orban's government and his allies in the right-wing Fidesz Party say the new policies are merely meant to deter vagrancy and petty crime. But the United Nations' point person on extreme poverty recently called on Hungary to reconsider its anti-homeless legislation. Noting that the policy comes during an unprecedented economic crisis, Magdalena Sepulveda said Hungary's poor need help and housing, not handcuffs.
Mate Kocsis, the mayor of Budapest's long-troubled 8th District, was the first to start enforcing the tough, new anti-homeless ordinance. He declined an interview request. But at a recent rally, he said his Fidesz Party's reforms are like fixing up a big apartment.
MAYOR MATE KOCSIS: (Through translator) All the noise can disturb the neighbors, and often people living in the building start complaining. But when the noise of the hammer and saw stops, everybody is happy to live in a new home where every detail has been changed and renovated.
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WESTERVELT: Back at the Danko street homeless shelter, 27-year-old Zoltan Szarka says he dreams of getting out of the shelter system and out of Hungary.
SZARKA: (Foreign language spoken)
WESTERVELT: I'll try again to find a job. And I'll try to learn a foreign language, he says, any foreign language. And then I hope to have the courage to leave Hungary.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
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CORNISH: This is NPR News.