The walls of Eger’s only homeless shelter are moldy. The roof is leaking. The cabinets are smelly. The city wants to move it and has found a location on the outskirts where it would renovate and modernise a building. But the people living there don’t want a homeless shelter in their neighborhood. And the homeless are afraid they won’t be able to reach the city center from their new home kilometers away.
“I’m perhaps the oldest one here,” István Kovács says at the rundown shelter. “My wife died. We were together for 17 years. We lived in a sublet. I had a heart attack. I had heart surgery in Debrecen and afterwards I suddenly had nowhere to go. So I ended up here.” Kovács has lived at the Eger homeless shelter in Kertész utca (street) for years. His contract with the shelter gives him the right to live there permanently. He pays them HUF 15,000 (USD 53) from his HUF 26,000 (USD 93) monthly pension. In exchange he gets filth and temporary lodgings.
Kovács is one of three living in a small, decrepit room. “I don’t want to tell them the wall is moldy because the plaster has fallen off the back wall,” he says. They are expected to put their things away, but if they store them in the cabinet his clothes will become musty and the smell won’t come out in the wash. “I can’t afford a sublet, even with a flatmate. The HUF 29,000 he gets and the HUF 26,000 I get isn’t enough,” Kovács says. He can’t work due to his illness and he doesn’t want to move to the night shelter. It would be free but even more crowded.
The 55-year-old building housing the homeless shelter in Eger is on its last legs. It no longer meets code and is starting to collapse around those living inside. For many years the city has tried to move the home, and now it seems it will finally succeed in doing so: to the edge of town. The homeless are not keen to go, and those living in the neighborhood of the new shelter are doing everything possible to prevent it from moving there.
In Eger they pay attention to everyone
“The situation in Eger is much better than in Budapest,” according to the home’s director, István Varga. Of the 130 homeless people in Eger, the city can provide shelter for around 70 of them, but street and medical service is provided to the rest as well. 34 of them sleep each night at the night shelter, 10 can live for a long time at the temporary shelter, and there is a nursing home that cares for 26 mostly older and, for the most part sick, or physically handicapped people as well.
Varga says that even at the night shelter a certain community exists whose members return day after day, and where everybody has their own bed, and where, with the help of aid organizations, they can only feed them. “Most of Eger’s homeless are men,” says Varga. Marriages go bad, they divorce, half of them end up on the street—that’s how a lot of people become homeless. Varga says this wouldn’t be a problem if the persons in question had income and retained their social connections. “Sooner or later, however, these connections come to an end, and the affected person falls lower and lower and eventually drops out,” he says. Their job is to rebuild these connections. Varga believes that in the past five years 25 have permanently left the home due to an improvement in their situation.
From the city center to an industrial area
However, the home is full. “Many of them work. In the morning they go to work, mostly public work,” says Varga. Many collect things, either iron or glass, which they then sell. “They work a helluva lot.” However, it appears that the building erected in the 1960s as a workers hotel is near its end. “There’s a long list of criteria it no longer meets. It doesn’t have enough floor place per person, the ancillary facilities are not adequate, it is not handicap accessible.” Some parts of it have become dangerous. And still the residents live in the rundown building. The Eger local government has planned since 2008 to move the home from Kertész utca. They bought a rundown office building from the city in Felnémet far from the downtown but still within the Eger city limits. This year they finally received the official support necessary for its renovation: the European Union is contributing EUR 180 million to the project.
They deliberately chose a large property on a large site as far from the city center as possible. “In part due to pressure from residents, the local government made sure that this important social responsibility be fulfilled in an area that is less dense from a residential point of view, and most such properties can be found on the edge of town,” explained the Eger local government.
This is how the new home came to be situated in the middle of an industrial site, next to a train track, five kilometers from the center of Eger. But even here the local government was not spared opposition from locals. The leaders of the Local Patriot Association for Felnémet started protesting and collecting a petition against the homeless shelter that was eventually signed by more than three thousand people.
Who would want them to come here?
“The majority of those living in Felnémet do not want the homeless shelter to come here,” says association head Zsolt Bódi. He believes the locals are afraid that over time the number of homeless people living there will greatly increase and that the homeless will be coming and going, for example, to the nearby shop, and that real estate values will fall.
He adds that the possibility of holding a local plebiscite for the purpose of seceding from Eger has been raised. However, according to a change in the law in 2013, it would not be enough for Felnémet inhabitants to want this. More than half the residents of Eger would also have to vote in favour, which he believes is not realistic. And for this reason the homeless shelter is to remain.
“With respect to the exceptions, these disadvantaged people do not always live out their days in a manner that the community can accept,” says Bódi. He says the locals are not opposed to homeless people but they will receive them with reservations. On the subject of the home, they believe that Felnémet is not the right place for it, but rather another place in Eger even more isolated.
“Who wants these vagrants to come here?” exclaims an older man living in council housing in Berva near the future home. He believes the homeless only cause scandals, get drunk and lay on the streets under the tables. “What do we expect from them? How will they behave?” One woman says that grandparents will be afraid to allow their grandchildren out into the streets, and fear that the values of their homes, for which they worked their entire lives, will turn to nothing.
It will be difficult to travel to the city in a wheelchair
“They will drive us out of there,” says Kovács. He said they’re afraid of the move and read in the newspaper that the locals don’t want them to go to Felnémet. “They said that the homeless may not enter local shops,” he says, adding that he would rather stay in their rundown home, to which at least they have become accustomed.
His roommate, István Janicsák, says he is in the habit of walking to the doctor in the city. He says he needn’t travel far from the current building because it is almost in the city center. By contrast, from Felnémet he would have to travel by regional bus, which he cannot afford on his modest pension.
Among those living at the homeless shelter some say it does not matter where the shelter is, it is still worth it to them. Others say that they are from villages, they like village life and it will be better for them in Felnémet. But then there are a lot who believe moving to the edge of town would cause serious problems for them.
János has lived at the shelter since 2010. Like many of the others living there, he is handicapped, missing one of his legs. He is in the habit of taking his electric wheeler to the Dobó square to do the shopping. Jözsef sits in a wheelchair, and one of the nurses pushes him once a week. “At that time we go to the county library, visit exhibitions,” he says.
Both are afraid that it will be more difficult to get to the downtown from the new location. János must completely charge his electric wheelchair but it is possible that he wouldn’t be able to reach the Dobó square. Somebody would have to take him into town by car. But if he has to use the toilet, they might as well come right back because there are no public toilets in the city that handicapped people can use.
In place of tiny rooms, a modern building
“This will be the most modern social institution in the county,” says István Varga about the building. He says it will be necessary to travel more to and from the city but this mostly affects those who work. “The majority of residents are bed-ridden. They haven’t been traveling about much. The rest can be transported by car.”
“The new home won’t be so crowded. It will be more comfortable, more spacious, obstacle free, and will even have a lift,” says Varga, explaining why the new institution would be better. It would accommodate 88 instead of 70 people, and the rooms would be larger, which is important because the many physically handicapped people need space in order to be able to move from their wheelchair to the bed. “This place is tiny. Uncle Józsi and Jani’s wheelchairs don’t even fit next to one another,” says one of the attendants pointing to their current room. The attendants’ office and the kitchen would also be more attractive than the current one.
They also need a place to live
The new homeless shelter is now certain to be built. The renovations have already begun, and the local government has promised road improvements and a public surveillance system to the local residents. Varga says the renovations will be ready in October, and they will obtain the necessary permits by next spring, after which they can move. The rundown Kertész street institute will finally close.
“Perhaps I am alone in my opinion but I believe one needn’t fear a homeless shelter,” says a Felnémet inhabitant. He is not alone. Others are also of the opinion that these people need a decent place to live. “They are dirty, smelly and we have to pay more attention to them. A little social sensitivity is needed here,” says the resident, who revealed at the end of our conversation that, while he is not afraid of the homeless shelter, he does not believe that the city should take in any refugees.