In race against time, Hungarian social workers persuade homeless to seek shelter

January 7, 2017

Photo: D. András Hajdú

Many of Budapest’s homeless are refusing to go to shelters despite nighttime temperatures falling as low as minus 16 C. Social workers are desperately trying to persuade them not to sleep rough. In cases where the homeless refuse to go indoors, the helpers are distributing blankets and hot tea. On Friday night we accompanied two social workers to see how people living in the street defy the unbearable cold.

“I’m Attila, the street guy,” says Attila Kozma, gently poking a gray blanket at the entrance to a panel building on Esztergom street. A few seconds later the blanket begins moving, and a bearded man looks out from underneath. Behind his face appears the face of a woman.

“Yeah, I know, I know,” comes the sleepy response.

“Will you come with us to the shelter?”

“Which one?”

“Let’s say the one on Váci street.”

“All right.”

Attila and Julianna pack up their things and head for the nearest shelter. Photo: D. András Hajdú

The couple, Attila and Julianna, quickly agree to be taken to a homeless shelter. But this was not always the case Friday night, despite it being the coldest night this winter with temperatures dropping to minus 10-11, for which the homeless of Budapest have been preparing with scavenged blankets and bottles of cheap wine.

It was 10 o’clock at night. Attila Kozma and his colleague Edina Baranyi had been traveling continuously for three hours. Both work for the Budapest Methodology Social Center and Institution (BMSZKI). As members of the street service, they are responsible for visiting the district’s homeless. But between 6pm and 1am that night they scoured the streets for homeless in response to a public announcement — anyone electing to spend the night out of doors that night was unlikely to wake up the next morning.

A few minutes later Attila and Julianna are sitting in a BMSZKI van on their way to the Rév street shelter. They arrive frozen and shivering, and are assigned two beds next to an older man by the name of József in a room with three beds. They quickly learn that József was supposed to be accommodated in the Szabolcs street facility, but ended up on Rév street after he was picked up and brought there. “Now we have to take him back, otherwise he will officially occupy space in two buildings,” explains Attila Kozma.

The couple shortly thereafter in the Rév street shelter. Photo: D. András Hajdú

And there was need for space. The dispatcher continuously dictated more and more addresses to the two social workers. “We’re mostly talking about reports from residents. It’s rarer when an ambulance or a public area inspector calls. The problem is that if a person sees a homeless person, they call the help line without asking the person in question whether they need anything or are cold. For this reason we do not always know precisely the condition of the person we are going to be dealing with. Often they report them because they are afraid that they will freeze at the entrance to their building in front of their eyes,” says Attila, a sight even those generally unwilling to help are reluctant to countenance, he adds.

Holding out until the last minute

“This is the thickest pullover I could find at home. I’m wearing a thinner one underneath it. Under my trousers I’m wearing thick stockings and I have just put on my third pair of socks, even though in theory they are thermal. And of course I’m wearing a hat, scarf and gloves,” says Edina when asked how she prepared for the night shift. “We receive the last report at midnight but I don’t think we will finish before 1am.” They are calculating for a huge number of calls owing to the cold. “Many hold out until the last minute to decide to go to the shelter.”

Edina Baranyi and Attila Kozma. Photo: D. András Hajdú

Of the people we meet in the street Friday night, many prefer to remain there because they are afraid of the crowds awaiting them at the shelter. “Of course I’m not going, I don’t know who’s there,” objects József who we met in the neighborhood of Kárpát street. It was already bitingly cold and yet he said he wasn’t cold despite bedding down under a bush, wrapped in blankets. The street service colleagues were already in contact with him but had to call on him again after a local resident contacted the authorities. The two social workers are afraid he will freeze in the street, even though József believes there is nothing to fear, and accepts some packaged croissants from them.

They then paid a visit to another homeless person by the name of Iván, who spoke with them but did not accept anything from them. “This is the farthest we’ve gotten with him in nearly six years. The only exception was when he developed lice and we gave him a treatment for it. But he did not allow us to apply it, he did it himself,” says Attila.

József could not be persuaded to go to the shelter. Photo: D. András Hajdú

We found Iván in the garbage can storage area of a large housing estate where one of the residents lets him spend the night. Such things occur in winter and can give rise to conflict among the residents, because not everyone is pleased about homeless people seeking shelter at the building. While speaking to him, a new call arrives. Ten minutes later they were looking for Mónika. Little of her face could be seen. She had wrapped herself up in six blankets so that her eyes barely peeped out from under her hat. Her partner, Laci, had been taken away by ambulance earlier and was spending the night at a homeless shelter on Könyves Kálmán boulevard. “If you come with us, you can spend the night with him,” says Edina, but Mónika rejects their offer of help in a slow, gruff voice.

Iván took shelter in a garbage can storeroom. Photo: D. András Hajdú

“We’re fine out here, but when we end up at a shelter, then sooner or later we are separated and have to meet again on the street,” explains Laci. In vain did they offer Mónika the closer Dózsa György street shelter as well, and she did not want to go there either, claiming she wasn’t cold. But she accepted a container of hot tea and promised them that the following day she would go to the day shelter to warm up.

“But Mónika, you know that László (Laci) is waiting for you at the Könyves shelter, and if you don’t go to him then he won’t be able to handle it without you and he will leave, even though he is not in very good shape.”

“Yes.”

“Then should I not inform Könyves that you will go visit him tomorrow?”

“Well, all right.’

“Then we will inform them and they will be waiting, all right?”

“All right.  I won’t promise to get there by any specific time but I will go there.”

Mónika promises to visit the shelter the next day. Photo: D. András Hajdú

That was the social workers’ second attempt at persuading Mónika to go to a shelter, but without success. “When we visited her during the day there was a civilian as well, probably the one who called us. He promised Mónika that if he finds her there the next morning he will bring her something,” said Attila, who believes this was an outrageous and irresponsible thing to do as it only served to keep somebody out in the cold when they might have spent the night in a warm shelter.

“It’s a madhouse what’s going on today”

They were called to Kodály Circle because of three young men huddled in an entryway on Andrássy Avenue and trying to keep warm with a bottle of cheap wine. Two of them were named Zoltán. The one named Árpad was 42 years old, the last eight of which he has spent homeless. Earlier he had worked on construction performing every kind of task, including laying tiles. “The building industry was my profession,” he recalls with a plastic bottle of wine in his hand. The two Zoltáns are in worse condition than him, especially the younger looking man who is sitting on the ground wrapped in a blanket. He sometimes spoke but clearly wasn’t well and was shivering. “His body just told him that it can no longer handle it,” said Árpad, adding that he needed to go to a shelter.

Zoltán (left) went to the shelter. Árpad (right) refused. Photo: D. András Hajdú

However, he did not want to accompany his friend, because he spent years in shelters and hated the whole thing.  “They stole my boots from under my head, understand? From under my head!” After some urging, the two Zoltáns agree to get in the van and be taken to Rimaszombat street shelter in Budapest District 11.

When they finished, the social workers returned to District 13. A 40-year-old man, whom they have known for a while, was lying on the vent of a grocery store in Szent István park. He was hardly willing to communicate with them, and determinedly rejected the shelter despite being a diabetic. Attila believes that he has little insulin left and the machine that administers it has broken down. Although many from the neighborhood brought him groceries, that doesn’t help him with his illness.

It was nearly midnight when they received two calls. “It’s a madhouse what’s going on today,” said the porter at the Szabolcs street facility, and it was difficult to disagree. Even for those who were properly dressed, traveling in the city by car, getting out every ten or fifteen minutes, it was bitingly cold. The Countrywide Meteorological Service (OMSZ) announced that the weekend would be even colder, with temperatures plummeting to minus 15 in Budapest and as low as minus 20 or 25 in parts of northern and central Hungary.

Photo: D. András Hajdú

If you see a person lying on the ground who is unresponsive, call for help! Older people living in unheated flats are also in danger. The number of the Budapest dispatcher service is (+36) 1 338-4186.

If you encounter somebody in the street who is suffering from hypothermia, or notice that your neighbor’s chimney is not smoking and have not seen the person for a while, then notify the family assistance authorities, the local government, or the dispatcher service, or dial 107 or 112.

For information about the dispatcher service and the homeless providers, visit www.diszpecserportal.hu and www.hajlektalan.info.

According to Károly Czibere, state undersecretary for social matters and social improvements, there are 11,100 places in shelters across the country, which he believes is sufficient even on the coldest of nights. He said 83 street services are operating.

The government spends more than HUF 8 billion (USD 27.5 million) assisting Hungary’s 16,000 homeless every year, or roughly HUF 500,000 (USD 1,725) per homeless person — an amount roughly equal to four months’ minimum wage. An earlier study showed that this could be used more effectively.

According to Zoltán Aknai, the director of the Shelter Foundation, as of December 31 countrywide shelters were operating at 90 percent capacity.  As temperatures continue to fall, more and more homeless have sought temporary shelter, resulting in severe overcrowding.