Love won't keep us together: Homeless couples in Budapest

January 13, 2015

Translation of Blanka Zöldi’s article “They split us up whenever they can” (“Ahogy tudnak, elválasztanak minket”) appearing in on 13 January 2015.  Photographs by D. András Hajdú.

What shelter can homeless go to who want to spend the night with their lover?  The number of coed homeless shelters can be counted on one hand.  It’s a big deal for someone to be able to come up with the HUF 10-12,000 (USD 37-45) monthly rent.  But even then, it is often necessary to wait for months to get in – often with another pair in the same room.  Many prefer spending the night in the street or in a shack in order to remain together.


“I took her under my wing because they were taking advantage of her.  They got her drunk and then they withdrew her entire pension from her credit card” says 59 year-old János who met Saci two years ago at the Dózsa György street homeless shelter.  He says he was propositioned by many other women who say Saci isn’t right for him.  “I will never abandon her.  We had to live in separate rooms here at the Dózsa shelter, but after a while I said to her that if we cannot live in the same room, I’ll go crazy.  But also because the place is full of cockroaches and bugs” says János, who was put out of the shelter after he talked to a television crew about these problems.

For nearly three weeks he lived with Saci in an underpass. Then they found themselves a room with four beds in a the Aszódi street homeless shelter.  “We’re together with another couple, and we are completely at their mercy.  The one night they asked that if we go to the city, could we come home a bit later.  Because they have sexual problems they need to solve.  We are still new here.  We don’t ask such things of them.”


Both Misi and Katalin are twenty years old.  They live together in an underpass since last September.  “The patrolman wakes us up two or three times a night and tells us to leave.  Supposedly we spoil the city’s appearance.  We go up to the street, wait for him to leave, and then we come back, even if the cameras are watching.  The fact that the telephone rings every two hours also bothers them.  They are always calling Adam who sleeps here on the other side.  But for him alcohol is more important than his wife and children, or going home” says Katalin, who was told she must spend four days in jail for sleeping rough.

“We would go home, but we have nowhere to go” says Misi, who wrote to Katalin via Facebook because he liked her.  The girl was not on speaking terms with her mother and for this reason moved in with Misi’s family.  “I was 11 when my father died.  My mother got together with a man who liked drink and horses too much.  We ate for 3 or 4 days at the beginning of each month.  After that there wasn’t money for anything, just for the usurer.  My mother ended up selling our house for HUF 50,000 (USD 186).  That’s when we came to Pest” explains Misi.

Both would like to work, but for any job they need an official place of residence.  Subway commuters often bring them dinner.  And during the holidays they even received cakes and “bejgli”.  The florist sometimes give Misi a single rose to give to Katalin.  “We only go to shelters where we can remain together, but for that we must pay more than HUF 10,000 (USD 37) a month, which is too much.  The two of us can collect two or three thousand forints a day, but we spend that on food” says Katalin.

Every day they go to the nearby “Spirit Point” (Lélek Pont) foundation to shower.  There they make sure the men and women do not bathe together.  “They are always watching us.  And if Misi opens the door on me, then we cannot go the next day” says Katalin, and bashfully adds that during summer she and Misi usually go to Margaret Island.  “We always take care to use birth control, because now all we need is for a baby to be born in the street” says the girl.  If they had a flat they would very much like to have at least one child.  She is certain she wants to spend her life with Misi.


My husband and I live separately, but only since he beat my head with the base of a key” says Mária, who has been homeless since 1992.  Her previous partner died of alcohol poisoning, but since they did not officially live together, Marika was thrown out of the flat where the two of them had lived together with a one year old autistic child.  Marika ended up in the street without a job, her son in a state institution.  “I was living in the street when I met my second husband, Anti.  We spent a lot of time together in the street and in shelters.  If they’re nice at the shelter then they put the pair in neighboring rooms” says Marika.  For a long time she would not say why she beat her spouse, who recently escaped to the Kocsis shelter.  “It was revenge, because when I was sick and just laid there all day, he beat me with his belt.  We aren’t together now but we meet every day.  We’re no longer in love but we will always remain friends”.


Istvan and Erika became homeless three yeears ago.  They didn’t want to allow their faces to be photographed because they were afraid the criminals would find them.  We lived in a kind of shed next to the gypsies.  We could hear everything an infamous criminal did, whose name I cannot bring myself to say.  He dealt his drugs next to us.  We had to leave that place becase we knew too much” says Istvan, who previously worked as a cook.  They have been living at the Dózsa shelter for six months, paying HUF 11,250 (USD 42) a head per month.

“We got two rooms next to one another.  We organized things so that we keep our clothes and things in one room, and we sleep in the other” said István, who has lived together with Erika for 32 years.  “Are we in love?  We were a long time ago, but we stand by one another through difficulties as well” says István, while removing Erika’s medical report from a plastic folder.  “She suffered a stroke four years ago.  If she says something now she won’t remember it half an hour from now” says István with Erika standing quietly by his side.  The last time she had an epileptic fit, they were barely willing to treat her at the hospital.  They didn’t want to believe that it wasn’t alcohol that made her sick”.


“We waited three months to be able to share a room at the shelter.  They put me out two months later because I didn’t have a job and I couldn’t pay the money” says József, who previously worked as a bricklayer.  Now he lives in a men’s shelter in the Könyves Kálmán street  He met his companion five years ago, who was cleaning train cars at the time.   They moved to a sublet in Kőbánya (Budapest’s proletarian 10th district), but finally could not pay the rent.  They have been homeless for two years.

“I earn HUF 51,000 (USD 19) a month as a public worker cleaning parks.  The money is credited to my card.  And by the time I withdraw it, only HUF 49,000 is left.  I always pay the shelter before anything else, and then the obligatory saving deposit.  Then I can save money on my stomach” says the woman, who tearfully recalls the time when they had enough money to be able to live together in the shelter.  They even had a room they could lock with a key.  Even now they meet every day, but they very much miss the intimacy.  “It’s rather awkward.  We need to solve this somehow but there isn’t very much we can do” says József, who hopes that he can find work so that there will be money for them to return to the coeducational shelter.


“We’ve been together for nine years.  I sat in the Határ street under a bridge and read a love letter.  It’s been nine years.  He came over to me in a white hat and we spoke.  We’ve been together now for nine years.  In his white hat he said “Madam, I’ve always fancied you.  It’s been nine years since I read his love letter.  In his white hat he came over and asked “Madam, may I introduce myself?  Or what was that I wanted to say?  He was wearing a white hat” recalls the 56 year-old Katalin, who would not let go of Ferenc for a second.  The man patiently corrected the story in a calm voice.  He had known her from before.  He noticed Katalin from under one of the columns in the overpass.  “She didn’t read a love letter but rolled a cigarette.  Her husband had been convicted of rape and sent to jail for three years.   She’s a very smart woman by the way, and is very attached to me” says Ferenc, who has just come out of the hospital after his second stroke.  “Daddy, take the vegetable that I received.  You need it more than me” says Katalin, handing a heavy bag to her partner.

“I’m an electrical engineer and worked abroad until my parents died. The house was lost.  I am 64 years old.  I worked for 27 years and nine months, but they miscalculate and I only receive a partial pension of HUF 27,000 (USD 101) a month” says József.  “This is not enough for us for us to rent a sublet together or pay to use a shelter. We’re together during the day, but at night I am with the men.  I often escort her to the woman’s shelter here.  She is the only normal person here.  The rest of the women are a bunch of drunks” says József while Katalin takes the Christmas edition of Fedel Nélkül (Street News) out of her bag.  “If we don’t have money, they split us up any way they can”, says Katalin, hugging her partner before standing in line at the shelter.


“I’m not homeless.  This is just temporary.  I can only stay in the Zaci street halfway house until the age of 21.  But I also earn money, but this is worth more because it’s cheaper than a sublet.  My girlfriend isn’t homeless either. It’s only temporary for her, too” says the 23 year old Eta.  She says only those cannot pay the shelter fee who waste their money on drink or drugs.  “Now I’m sleeping on a wooden bench because I was banned from the shelter for smoking weed.  But this is just temporary.  I am working and I go to school.”