Budapest homeless brace for arctic weather

January 6, 2017

Homeless seeking shelter in the underpass at Blaha Lujza square. Photo: D. András Hajdú

Translation of Illés Szurovecz’s article Cheap wine warms the freezing homeless in underpasses appearing in abcug.hu on January 6th, 2017.  

The homeless living in the streets of Budapest who refuse to go to shelters plan to spend the coldest nights of winter with a bottle of wine under scavenged blankets in shop entrances and other wind-protected places.  There are those who remain outside because they hate crowds.  Others are afraid they won’t be admitted to overcrowded shelters.  And then there are those who are too smelly to be transported to shelters.

In the final quarter of 2016 some 80 people died from exposure in Hungary.  But the coldest winter nights are only coming now.  Temperatures are expected to drop to minus 10-15 Friday night, which is especially dangerous for those living in the street or in unheated flats.  In Budapest many are seeking shelter in homeless shelters and day shelters where they get hot soup and other food.  But even then many plan to spend the nights in the streets.

Many believe in the warming properties of alcohol. Photo: D. András Hajdú

“At most I’ll pull up to the bottom of shops, if they are closed,” says László, who spent Friday afternoon in the underpass at Budapest’s Blaha Lujza square several steps from the stairs.  He wrapped himself up to his neck with as many layers as he could, but even then he strongly felt the wind.  Homeless since 2000, he has been to many shelters but is still not certain that he will go to one at night.  “I’ll see,” he says laconically, explaining that he had been banned from several places for inappropriate behavior.

By day László seeks shelter on the tram, but spends the night outdoors. Photo: D. András Hajdú

Encouraging him to seek shelter was László Banicz, a social worker with the Public Foundation for the Homeless, who encountered László by accident. They have known each other for a long time and Banicz would be glad if he would spend the night in the Jászberény street shelter where they would also feed him dinner.  Banicz says there are shelters that admit everybody when it gets to be this cold, turning away nobody seeking help.  The police and public area inspectors also try to persuade the homeless to go to shelters.  “We wake them up in order to see whether they are even living,” said a Budapest District 8 policeman, who checked the personal identity cards of several homeless nearby for consuming alcohol in public.  At such times the police write them up but since it is a misdemeanor they do not arrest anyone, merely confiscate the alcohol.

László Banicz tries to persuade a homeless woman to go to a shelter. Photo: D. András Hajdú

Zsuzsanna also seeks shelter in the Blaha Lujza underpass with her girlfriend who refuses to give her name. Zsuzsanna, who has lived on the street for 28 years, is in an especially difficult situation because she can only move with a walker, and because of her illness must wear a diaper, which is completely soaked.  “Everyone looks down at the homeless, but then why isn’t there at least one free, public toilet for people to use?” she asks.  Zsuzsanna would happily go to the Budapest District 4 shelter but says it is impossible for her to get there because she is put off the bus owing to her soiled diaper. Both of them plan to spend Friday night in the streets.  “Look how thin this is,” she says showing her blanket.  She says only the cheap wine warms her, which she drinks all day.  “We’ll go further inside the underpass, where it’s clean,” she says, pointing at the opposite stairs before looking at the dirty cardboard gathered around them.  “We can no longer stand to remain here.”

Zsuzsanna (left) says it is impossible for her to get to a shelter. Photo: D. András Hajdú

Among the homeless checked by the police was János, who is also known to the police by his nickname, Pamacs.  “In my childhood I looked the same as my grandfather, so they called me Papóka.  But we had a dog whose name was Pamacs.  After a while, that became my nickname as well,” he explains.  János tries to collect money in the underpass by playing his recorder, but he is not at all afraid of the cold.  In fact, he proudly shows that under his coat he is wearing no clothes at all.  “We sleep half naked under blankets and sleeping bags.”  Pamacs still goes to shelters but his friend, who has lived in the streets for 40 years, is not willing to, and he does not want to leave him alone on Friday.

Pamacs thinks a coat and a blanket is enough to survive the cold. Photo: D. András Hajdú

Tímea is not especially worried about the cold either.  During the day she sits in the minus four degree temperature at the Corvin tram stop in the hope of collecting money from someone.  She will spend the night in an underpass somewhere, and even though she only had a coat with her that afternoon, she says she has a brown blanket, which she thinks will be enough.  “I have a secluded nook where I take shelter and where there are blankets.  In the baggage storage area too,” she says.

Tímea defying the cold at the Corvin quarter tram stop. Photo: D. András Hajdú

Many spend the cold days and nights on buses and trams in an attempt to stay warm, but László says this only works during the day because the night shifts are always full of inspectors.  He has been homeless for two years and has lived in shelters, but is not keen to go there because he hates sharing a room with eight other people.

He will spend the night in the vicinity of Andrássy and Oktogon at the entrance to a shop in order to find some warmth.  He said he has no blanket and nothing other than what he carries, but still does not think he will freeze.  He arrived from the northern industrial city of Ózd two years ago after his mother died.  He has not found fixed work since then.  Sometimes he helps out at construction sites.  Every day he collects bottles but would like to find a normal place to live.  His younger sister is a nurse, his older sister a metal worker.  Both live in Ózd.  Sometimes he visits them but he neither moves in with them nor asks them for help.  “They’ve got their own problems.”

If you see people lying on the ground who do not respond, call for help!  Older people living in unheated flats are also in danger.  The telephone number of the dispatcher service in Budapest is  +36 (1) 338 41 86.

A list of shelters in Budapest as well as the countryside can be found here.