It was three days before leaving Budapest, and I was reflecting upon the history of this place, it’s location as a gateway between Europe and Asia, and hence, historically, a gateway for conflict. I was looking to find the modern representation of the ones most affected, in today’s Hungary, by the last twenty years’ transitions to new political structures and power relationships.
Here, it is the growing numbers of homeless people. With up to 50,000 estimated to be homeless, out of a population of 10,000,000, that is one in two hundred people living on the streets in some form. A sobering thought, particularly while staying in the midst of the tourist strip, passing shop after shop, cafe after cafe, the bright lights of opulence, existential moments indeed!
Europe, generally, is recovering poorly from the so-called Global Financial Crisis, the Global Financial Conveyance, where billions and billions were transferred from public to private in the interests of saving the poor banks, who, twelve months later, were back to making enormous profits and paying executives ludicrous wages and bonuses.
At the bottom end of this recovery are the homeless, particularly in a country like Budapest. Caught somewhere in the murky waters adrift from its communist past, looking into the bright lights of a shiny democratic future, mostly owning the worst of each system, and all neatly packaged in free market ideology and massive, growing debt. There are drastically insufficient services and facilities for homeless people here, similar to so many cities around the world. And still, despite the numbers on the street growing year by year, there remains ineffective statistical reporting on the true nature of the problem, let alone services, facilities, and staff.
For perspective, consider that Hungarian winter nights get down to -15 degrees celsius. Consider that for the estimated 50,000 people homeless in the country, there are government supported and privately operated shelters for around 10,000. Consider that 90% of these shelters are in Budapest, yet there are considerable homeless populations in other cities around Hungary such as Debrecen and Nyíregyháza to the east , Szeged in the south, in the north in Miskolc, and in Pécs and Gyor to the west.
The homeless, to me, are the ultimate expression of failed democracy and its oft-associated free market policy, representing the reality of poor distribution of wealth, a lack of any real safety net. They are the cold, harsh truth of the supposedly free market, where economic freedom is accorded only to those with the wealth to buy in, and the much lauded trickle down effect is a fantastical association that is yet to materialise in any substantial form. The idea that a free market will supposedly correct itself in the face of “aberations” like homelessness and escalating personal and national debt is preposterous, given that those with the most to gain from this lack of fair economic distribution are the ones controlling the means of wealth and therefore policy creation. There will never be equity in this system until there are real and effective values, determined through grass roots participation, for social, environmental and cultural elements of our society built into its accountability.
So emerged an idea to make a short film on the homelessness situation in Hungary. Not intended as an answer or as an all-comprehensive review of the situation, the film is intended as an insight, a snapshot of both internal and external perspectives. Internal, so much as interviews with homeless people share an insight that is unfathomable for any of us who have not spent a night on the streets. External views being those of people who work with the homeless and my own, through research.
After putting together an outline and an inquiry frame, I sent this to my 20 year-old cousin Tamas to see if he might be interested. He studies sociology, linguistics and history in Budapest and so I thought maybe this would interest him. With only maybe a dozen words to my Hungarian vocabulary and English only really spoken here in a tourist context, there was no way I was going to be able to do any more than advise him and manage the camera and audio recorder. So, he agreed, and the next day we set off for a homeless resource centre and hostel in the 8th District. Prior to 1944, this area was predominantly inhabited by Jewish people, and, following the horror of the holocaust here in Hungary, was used by the newly formed communist government as an area to deliver a social program integrating Romany people into Budapest. The area has a reputation for being dangerous and unclean, yet the reality of this area is no different to so many poor neighbourhoods around the world, where people acknowledge you in the street and the danger is more in the offense that unfounded fear creates.
It was a big experience for both of us.
For me, to be trying to direct the process while not understanding anything of what was happening, focusing on trusting Tamas and letting him run with his conversations until he needed some guidance, was tricky indeed, especially for someone so used to directing the action! For Tamas, according to him afterward, this was a life-changing experience. On our way to the hostel, initially, he had asked me why I wanted to do such a dangerous thing as filming homeless people and that I needed to make sure that he didn’t get stabbed. So go the standard stereotypes of all those who live below the accepted and legitimised middle class and why would things be different in post-communist Hungary, even for the bright and aware young Tamas?
Stay tuned for updates on the film. There’s a long way to go. First, Tamas will sub title the raw interviews, while I continue to research the narrative and piece this together into draft form, which I’ll then send to him for his edits and ideas. Then, transfer the sub titles to a captured and stabilized version of the interviews, adding all transitions, background images for narration over, audio bits and pieces, titles and credits, etc. I’m hoping that within two months we can have a draft…..