Since the re-emergence of mass homelessness in Hungary in the early 1990s, an elaborate system of state-sponsored overnight shelters, temporary hostels, drop-in centres and outreach work was developed in Budapest. The provision of affordable housing was however mostly absent from the public policy response to homelessness, which focused almost exclusively on providing shelter beds to rough sleepers, and on preventing rough sleeping for those who lost their homes.
The homeless policy of Hungary and Budapest resembles the “staircase model”, as access to better quality shelters are conditional on stricter behavioural requirements, but it consists of only a few steps – without any institutional avenues to independent, affordable housing.
Consequently, homelessness has increasingly become a long-term predicament in Budapest: according to survey data, the proportion of homeless people whose homelessness started more than 10 years ago has been sharply increasing in the past two decades, reaching 40% by 2020. Survey data also shows the majority of homeless people in Budapest do not think that they would ever be able to access independent housing – even though, according to social workers’ needs assessment, their vast majority would not require, if provided with affordable housing, any institutional care.
Since the election of 2019, the Municipality of Budapest’s approach to homelessness has changed: as opposed to both the criminalisation of homelessness (official state policy since 2010) and the restriction of homelessness policies to the provision of dormitory-style shelters, it increasingly emphasises the provision of affordable housing as the most essential response to homelessness. While public or social housing in Budapest is in scarce supply, and the Municipality of Budapest owns only around 1200 public housing units (in a city of nearly 2 million residents), in the past two years, through the Municipality’s various initiatives, around 160 formerly homeless citizens could move into around 120 affordable housing units.
There is growing evidence that instead of addressing the potential other problems of homeless people with the expectation that thereby they will be able to secure housing for themselves or will be made “housing ready” – first and foremost, their housing needs must be addressed. This argument is even more compelling in the case of pensioners, who are not able to increase their incomes.
The project’s goal is to provide permanent, secure, and affordable housing for elderly homeless individuals and couples in small, high-quality public rental units. The initiative also provides social work support to ease the transition from mostly long periods – sometimes decades – of homelessness to independent living, and to help new tenants in accessing the locally available mainstream health and social services. If necessary, a small grant for the cost of moving (furniture, etc.) is also available for prospective tenants. Mental illness or addiction does not make a homeless person ineligible for the programme, and there are no additional treatment or behavioural requirements. Participation in the social work element is also not compulsory, though encouraged.
A secondary role of the project is to ensure the more socially equitable (and more efficient) allocation of the subsidies inherent in the maintenance of the municipally-owned housing system, by providing access to many of its relatively high quality and popular buildings, previously accessible only to those with significant wealth, to one of the most vulnerable segments of the city’s population.
It is also a goal of the Municipality’s housing initiatives to reframe the public discourse around homelessness so that it does not centre around shelter beds but around access to affordable housing.
32 formerly homeless persons became tenants in their own affordable apartments.
While the project is too recent for assessing its outcomes, including the housing retention rates of its participants, the initial results are promising: the new tenants are satisfied in their new homes, every applicant who decided to move in is still in their apartments, and while the pro-government media and a few local politicians tried to incite “not in my backyard” sentiments against “moving homeless people in the midst of normal residents”, in general, there were no reports of complaints from the previous tenants about their new neighbours.
The programme’s social work element has also been a success, with the social workers providing valuable support to the new tenants with the psychological and practical undertakings of the transition.
A further benefit of the programme was to demonstrate, to social workers, municipalities, and the general public alike, that homeless people – including homeless people living in low-threshold, low-quality overnight shelters, not just those who were already made “housing ready” by more demanding, higher-quality temporary hostels – can be easily rehoused, if given the opportunity to rent a small apartment at an affordable price.
While housing-led approaches to homelessness have been growing in importance and coverage in several countries, this has been less the case in Hungary.
The innovation, therefore, is threefold:
The project was made possible by a legislative act of the City Council.
Stakeholders in the homeless assistance system were repeatedly involved in the process and were of great help in informing homeless people about and encouraging them to apply to the programme.
Housing is provided by the Municipality, while social work is provided by social workers otherwise working in a variety of civil, municipal, or religious organizations. Their work and the small grant for the costs of moving in are financed through the multi-organizational Budapest Homelessness Consortium. These elements of the programme are supervised by the Shelter Foundation.
Before the start of the programme, staff of the Municipality’s housing management was invited to openly discuss with the project’s facilitators any misgivings or fears they might have had.
The first results of the programme have been discussed in a workshop with social workers who interacted with the new tenants, where they provided important feedback on the targeting and operational details of the programme.
In two events for formerly homeless new tenants, they were also given the opportunity to offer feedback on the process to the colleagues of the Mayor’s Office, and they were provided with practical information about the process of signing the contract, moving in, receiving the bills, etc.
The project was also promoted to the press to contribute to the reframing of the public image and media representation of homeless people.https://budapest.hu/sites/english/Lapok/default.aspx