Ferenc Matlári named 2016 Hungarian Social Worker of the Year

January 3, 2017

Translation of Vince Ballai’s “Nobody loves the homeless like this” published by Abcug.hu on December 20th, 2016.

The 2016 Social Worker of the Year award winner tries to help everyone, but he claims he’s just doing what he was hired to do. Ferenc Matlári has worked at the Menhely Alapítvány (“Shelter Foundation”) for 13 years, where his primary duty is to help those in need take care of administrative paperwork. Matlári accidentally ended up working in this field, but he was immediately drawn to it.

“Oh yeah! The guy on the poster,” says a person waiting outside the Kürt Street, Budapest, shelter, referring to Menhely Alapítvány employee Ferenc Matlári, the social worker awarded the Béla Felkai Award for 2016. The poster reference is to a poster the foundation put out which shows Matlári. Only a few of the people waiting for the shelter’s doors to open at 9am actually know who Matlári is, but those who know him only say good things about him.

“He tries to help everyone,” says Sándor, who is extremely thankful for Matlári’s assistance in helping him find lodging after living on the streets for 13 years. A grey-haired man, who could be confused with Santa Claus if his coat was just a few shades redder, did not arrive today to help people do paperwork, he’s here to use the internet. He walks in as soon as the doors open, registers at the front desk, and takes a seat at one of the computers in the shelter.

There are several computers at the Menhely Alapítvány’s Kürt Street shelter. People use the computers to access the internet, send emails, and prepare resumés. The majority of those in the waiting room are here to take care of administrative work or are here to keep warm. Social security, social housing, lost official documents, job hunting. Some receive their mail at the shelter, and some receive legal counsel. Some people come here to take showers, some come for the food, and some come to pick up the latest edition of Fedél Nélkül (“Without a Roof”), a magazine published by, and for the benefit, of the homeless community.

Two people are working the front desk. One is happy for the other’s success. “Finally, someone we know who actually deserved the awarded received it,” says one of them. “The award landed in the right place,” says the other, who points out that the award is more likely to be given to someone who takes special care in dealing personally with each client. Ferenc Matlári provides his clients with comprehensive assistance: helping them get their tax ID cards, find work, receive health care services, take part in social housing, and more.

He met with around 30 people when we visited him. One after another, his clients relinquished the brown chair in front of the desk to the next person in line. Occasionally, there is a disruption between two people in the room. “Sirs, you are far greater gentlemen than to speak to a lady [in this manner],” he tells the two arguing people. Earlier, when the help desk was not openly accessible, people were more impatient, he says.

Those who visit him often say they do not have good work, their employment contracts are not being signed, they feel like they’ve been duped. “I tell them to find work elsewhere, that there is plenty of work out there, that they will certainly be hired.” Nowadays, he says, it’s easier for these people to find work. Even the more elderly, such as a 60-year-old client of his, try to find work. The majority of employment opportunities are in warehousing, usually inventory picking and order fulfillment, but many also work in construction, and the women work primarily as cleaning ladies, he says.

The Menhely Alapítvány’s most popular employee, Béla Felkai, is the namesake of the award. A panel of three people – comprised of a Menhely employee, Felkai’s widow, and a homeless person – decide which of the foundation’s employees should receive the award. They count votes but also take into consideration the reasoning used to nominate candidates. In the case of Ferenc Matlári, one of the clients, an elderly lady, authored a very well-written and long explanation for nominating him. This document played a big role in Matlári receiving the award.

“The letter listed many services that are provided by the Kürt Street shelter. I only helped [her] access these services. This is not a one-man show,” Matlári says.

“What was going on in my mind was that someone else could have received this award. One award just isn’t enough, there should be more because many people are doing a lot,” Matlári said when asked how he reacted when he learned that he had won. So many people approached him and were happy for him receiving recognition that he eventually started to share the moment with them.

Ferenc Matlári, who initially trained as an agricultural engineer, has worked at the Menhely Alapítvány since 2003. He accidentally ended up in this field. He had a number of friends preparing to become social workers who worked at the foundation. Finally, after a few months of not having any work, he asked a friend if there is any work at the shelter.

“I was really turned off by all of this,” he remembers back to when he first arrived.

“This is a very good job. And while there are certainly many problems that can be listed in connection with homelessness, there is still something very human about it. This is a very strong group,” he says.

But it is exhausting. He meets with different clients every 10-15 minutes. Often times it’s difficult to determine what it is they want, and the constant concentration wears on you. He says his work here – earlier he worked in the foundation’s crisis ambulance and distributing hot tea – has helped him develop personally.

“There is a lot to be learned here, how people see the world, responsibility, and luck. I see things much more deeply now than in my earlier years.”

But the plight of his clients wears on him emotionally, especially when children are involved. “I could be any one of them,” he says about the homeless. He says it’s wrong to blame them for their troubles.

“That we can show up to work on time, and believe we can achieve something in life depends on where we were born, who our parents are. We live in subjective worlds that we – the individual – are at the center of, and it’s very difficult for us to change the emotions and thoughts that have been instilled in us.”

Many people consider him too permissive because of his views, he says. These people say that people need to meet requirements or else they won’t advance in life.

“But if someone is born in Szabolcs into a … family where the parents – even if they are well-intentioned – seek refuge in alcohol, then it’s very difficult to believe that everyone is capable making their own luck in life,” he says.

To explain why this work makes him feel good, he shares a story with us. He tells about a client taking part in their social housing program. He’s been following this client’s case for two years. The person is divorced with two kids. One kid lives with the mother, the other lives with a foster parent. This man has lived on the streets for a long time. He’s lived in stairwells and under bushes. During this time, he has had good and bad periods. He recently wound up in prison because he was unable to pay the fine levied on him for committing a serious offense. Now that he’s out, he is taking part in a social housing program in which participants receive regular counseling and take part in group activities. This man struggles with many problems. One day, they got the idea to bring him together with his children. They put him in a car and took him to his ex-wife. They picked up the ex-wife and older son and then drove out to the countryside to visit the younger son, whose school just happened to be hosting a Farsang celebration. The social worker thought he would see signs of their father’s problems in the children — he was wrong. Both children were well-balanced. The elder son is an outstanding student, the younger son is full of love and expressed boundless happiness when he saw his father. He didn’t let his dad’s hand go for an hour when they visited him.

“When we see a homeless man in Pest, we simply can’t fathom that someone would love this person like this. We [think it] simply wouldn’t be possible,” Matlári says.