Whenever we walk through the streets of our cities the tell tale signs of homelessness are very apparent. Sleeping bags laid in doorways, carrier bags full of personal belongings and shoes poking out from underneath a pile of clothes in a place where someone has made it their sleeping quarters for a night or until they get moved on… to another doorway... and then another.
The percentage of homeless people has risen sharply in recent years and varies from town to town, city to city and country to country. Why this is happening is due to numerous factors that make it a hard issue to tackle for any authority including government.
Although affluent countries like the UK and USA for example, are heavily affected, big cities in European countries are also troubled, not to mention what is happening in third world countries, it’s a growing problem globally and it is set to get worse.
Article written by Hazel Arnold.
It can be easy to make a judgement and think that these people should get a job so they can improve the situation they find themselves in. Maybe in some cases this is true, we all have to make life choices, but a lot of pressure is placed upon us to conform to a materialistic, capitalistic way of life that it seems the whole world is adopting, and if we don’t fit with it we get hit with it... through exclusion.
A phrase alleged to have been voiced by British prisoner John Bradford back in the 16th Century comes to mind, ‘There but for the Grace of God go I’, meaning a recognition of someone's misfortune which could as easily happen to oneself.
For one reason or another, be that a twist of fate, bad luck or some other misfortune, it's unfortunate that some people end up living on the streets. Fortunately, it's a blessing there are many charities with volunteers giving their time to help those in need as was discovered with one such European charity called Budapest Bike Maffia based in Hungary.
Back in July 2018 my partner and I had planned a motorbike trip to travel around Eastern Europe on our Tiger Explorer 1200 motorcycle, and after doing a similar trip in 2017, we were eager to go on another adventure. An adventure where we could include visiting charities along the way to find out what they are doing to meet their campaign purpose and to learn about the people that are behind the running of them.
On our route was the Budapest Bike Maffia (BBM) who help with providing meals for homeless people in Budapest. A few weeks before we left I contacted them explaining I was a trustee for a charity called Charity Needs whose aim is to promote and profile other charities in the voluntary sector. My request was granted and we planned to be there roughly five or six days after we left. My contact was, Ildi Toth, who volunteers for the Bike Mafia after work, twice a week and some weekends. She works for an international school where she is a PA, but for The Budapest Bike Maffia, Ildi deals with international correspondence.
It so happens we arrived a day later than we planned, so arranged to meet on the Thursday, which luckily landed on the day the volunteers work on one of their many projects called Vitamin Commando. We went along to find out how it worked and see what it was all about after a day of sightseeing around the beautiful city of Budapest.
Having struggled with locating the address, we eventually found Ildi waiting outside for us with another volunteer. She took us into a courtyard off the main street, in the corner was the office of the Bike Maffia.
We found 10 to 12 volunteers working on the project which they meet up for twice a week on a Monday and Thursday. Some of the volunteers were sitting and others were standing, but all of them were working together at making sandwiches on a long table placed in the centre of the room. Some were buttering the bread others were doing the fillings while at the end of table the sandwiches were being wrapped and loaded into to plastic baskets ready for delivery to the homeless.
It was great to witness such a productive atmosphere, Ildi explained they had a really good team which to her felt like family.
The BBM also helps in the shelters by providing a meal on a weekend, but can only provide for one hundred at a time which can be really hard as sometimes there can be up to five hundred people in the shelter. As Ildi says, ‘how do you choose who to give a meal to?’.
Ildi went on to explain about the reasons why some people in her country end up living on the streets. The major reasons why this happens is due to loss of income or breakdown of families. In Hungary, especially Budapest, there is a shortage of places to rent which pushes the cost of renting up.
Social housing is limited too… There are roughly 15,000 people homeless in Hungary and 10,000 of them live in Budapest. There is some housing assistance available which depends on the size of apartment, there is also limited debt relief help, but the funding for this is in the hands of the local authorities to allocate where they want. The help normally equates to about $10 a week. Wages in Hungary are below the living standard of the EU, it's not surprising that some end up losing their home.
Drug and alcohol abuse is not common among the homeless in Budapest as both are too expensive to buy although it does happen.
Ildi is leader of the walking group which often has volunteers from other countries across the globe that are in Budapest for a short while and wish to give their time to help a good cause. You don't have to have a bike to get involved either. Ildi sticks to the same route which is in the direction of her home, a three kilometres walk. She takes the same route so she gets to know where to find the people in need, they also recognise that she is part of BBM and Ildi listens to the varied stories of why these people have sadly ended up in such a situation.
The Bike Maffia was founded in 2011 by Zoltán Havasi who decided with a friend on Christmas Day to do something for the many people he knew slept on the street. He got some friends together and made sandwiches which they then delivered on bikes. Since then it has grown with many projects to help people in need. The BBM rely purely on donations as well as receiving items such as clothes shoes and blankets which are especially needed in the winter. Budapest is very cold at this time and some unfortunately don't make it through the harsh winters.
Hungary's ruling party, Fidesz, introduced a new legislation in 2013 that no one will be allowed to live in public spaces such underpasses, on the banks of the River Danube, Budapest World Heritage Sites, Buda Castle Area and the City Centre, as the government believes this will protect health, security and cultural values. Local authorities can enforce this by a fine which can range from $18 to $500. If a person is caught breaking this law twice there is a chance they may receive a custodial sentence. Ildi explained the government aims to have everyone off the street by October 2018, so this is already happening.
The shelters in Budapest can house up to 6000 people, but this still leaves a substantial amount living on the street, because of the very bad conditions of the shelters. This is of great concern as the people needing help will have no choice but to move out of the city into the forest where it will be harder to find them and help them.
Here are some of the projects and campaigns BBM are working on to help the homeless or the prevention of it in Budapest:
+1 Sandwich: BBM’ aim with this project is to link schools and their students to get involved by bringing extra food with their lunch by the means of an extra sandwich as some of the shelters don't have facilities of a dining area. The idea is to educate young people to be compassionate and empathetic to those less fortunate than themselves.
In 2016 and 2017 they have had 38 schools involved providing up to 50.000 portions of food, fruit and deserts to the shelters.
They aim to increase the involvement of students as time goes on.
They also visit the schools and give lectures on the issues concerning the people in need.
Bike N Nite: this is a way BBM help to raise funds and awareness by tapping into the cultural nightlife in Budapest by bringing artists like DJs who do sets for free or for a small fee. These nights run once a month and start off in the afternoon. There is no charge.
The evenings are on cash honesty box basis. It's aimed at people through all walks of life and ages.
The funds raised here are for people living without shelter, families in need and community cooking events.
Sweet Home: There are families that live in social housing, but in many cases the places they live are in a very poor state. The BBM work alongside Childcare services to help choose the family to benefit.
They finished one apartment in 2017 with professional tradesman and volunteers to get the job done at the cost of 1.300.000 FT. They refurbished the kitchen, replaced windows and the front door. Along with getting the boiler and the heating working properly by replacing a lot of the wiring in the apartment to make the living space a better standard for the family that lived there. They have since starting work on a another apartment and raised funds for this by collaborating with NECC who organise dance parties held in Budapest Park. They donated 1.336.00 HUF which was the value of the ticket sales. Due to their hard work in getting this project done, BBM won award in March 2018 — The Poverty with Decorum Press Award.
All the projects can be found on their website and they do welcome you to go and volunteer if you happen to be in Budapest. It's very clear what really shines through is the innovative and dynamic approach the BBM have. To encourage a helpful attitude in people from all walks of life to get involved with the homeless and families in need, they do this by tapping into the popular culture of Budapest, if you watch the video links these really speak for themselves.
After the sandwiches were made and I wrapped up my interview with Ildi, I went out for a walk with her and carried our rucksack packed with food. It was just a moments walk before we found Frances sitting in a doorway, he was an elderly man of 70. He was not a well man and was waiting to be housed due to his health. He moved to Canada with his family, but never settled so returned to Budapest, but with no home to come back to, he had no choice but to live on the streets. He was grateful for the food and water.
It wasn't long before we came to another younger man in his thirties, his name was Gabriel, he also had been living a long time on the streets and was also waiting to be housed as he had health issues with his lungs.
As we were talking to Gabriel another man appeared beside us waiting for a sandwich too. He said it was for his wife who also lived on the streets with him. He told us he was an artist, so I thought at first maybe a painter, but it turned out he was from a famous circus family in Germany where he and his wife were both trapeze artists. They were hoping to join their family in Germany later on in the year.
You have to admire the volunteers that go out and work with the homeless making them feel someone cares. I spoke to a girl the night before we left in Folkestone. She was very open and told me she lived in an abusive relationship, which in the end led to her children being taken from her, which then turned her to alcohol and eventually caused her homelessness. I asked if it was scary especially for a women sleeping out on the streets, she told me it was. She had been kicked in the back by someone a night or two before. She also told me she hadn't drunk any alcohol for a month and wanted to be reunited with her children.
I found a different story in Lille, France on our last night before we came home, a man who had lost his home after his mother died now lived on the street with his dog. A kind passer-by translated for me, also making the point that homelessness is now a universal problem.
Just from hearing and seeing how the homeless situation has grown to such great proportions worldwide, anyone of us could end up in the same situation by a spiralling chain of events that could lead us or someone we know down the path of homelessness.
So that brings me back full circle about having compassion and empathy, whether it's deserved or not.
“There but for the Grace of God go I”.
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Head/Cover picture by: Head image by: Szekeres Máté for bbm.hu
Head/Cover image description: Homeless man seeking food from the Budapest Bike Maffia
Article written by: Hazel Arnold
Article edited by: Jonathan Fleming
Article Length: Words count is 2309 from 12507 characters
Released — 14-12-2018 - 07:30
Modified — Never
Closing Credits from CNF:
Ildi, thank you so much for your patients and waiting around for us when we were running late.
Thank you all for welcoming us and showing us your work, the streets and yourselves.
Budapest Bike Maffia Founder:
Mondays and Thursdays
Ildi Toth' name in her native language is: Ildikó Tóth
Send donations direct to BBM: http://bbm.hu/en/join-us/donation/