How can the Man in the Street Help People Living in the Street?

The winter is a crisis period when homeless shelters and social workers in the streets work full steam. Apart from help given by the professionals, the question arises: How can volunteers and pedestrians help out?

During the fifth discussion of the Coffee To Go program series, which focuses on social issues, the room of the House of Dialogue (Párbeszéd Háza) was filled with young volunteers and visitors. Representatives of organizations helping the homeless voiced their opinions on the role of such institutions, the responsibility of pedestrians and processes behind the scenes. The audience actively participated in the discussion with their questions and by sharing their own experiences.

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Photo: Márk Horváth

Miklós Vecsei, Vice President of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, launched the topic with a brief definition: “He who does not love and who is not loved can become homeless”. “Many mention divorce as a cause of homelessness. The primary problem is such cases is not just losing an apartment, but also the human side. Whoever receives the child has tasks to do. I refer to classic homelessness when someone is completely alone, when he or she has lost all purpose and love.”

The participants of the discussion agreed that homelessness is not primarily a housing issue. “In legal acts the crucial element is not having an address: on this basis there are approximately 400,000 homeless people currently in Hungary. We usually call homeless the people we meet in our institutions (night shelters, daytime warming rooms, temporary accommodations) or in the streets” – Péter Varga, Director of the  Public Foundation for the Homeless, explained the difference between these definitions. Gellért Ghyczy, methodological co-worker of the Hungarian Baptist Aid added: “There are many people among our clients who do not look homeless when we see them in the street. Some of them work, but have no other option than to live at a shelter. And when food is distributed, very often the computer science teacher teaching at the local school stands in line because the two hundred forints he wouldn’t spend on food that day is of help to him as well.”

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Photo: Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta (Magyar Máltai Szeretetszolgálat)

“There is a visible homelessness, which troubles opinion leaders. A couple of thousand people define homeless policy. Few people talk about the other aspects of homelessness, those living in shanty towns, in misery” – Miklós Vecsei added another point of view. “Homeless people living in the capital city have the option of benefitting from various services: they may receive food, accommodation, medical care, medications, they can wash their clothes and they can go to warming rooms. Several hundred villages exist in Hungary, where, if you were to compare a house with a tent in the capital city, you would prefer to live in the tent. It is in these dwellings that the kitchen cabinets or the parquet floors are in some cases burned during the night. Minus twenty degrees Celsius is so cold that tomorrow no longer matters, the important thing is to survive tonight. From such a small village Budapest is further than New York from Budapest.”

The man in the street has the most trouble lending a helping hand in these remote areas: “If this goal is important to him, he has to find the organizations with which he can reach these areas” – said Gellért Ghyczy. “However, it is easier to help a distressed small child in the neighborhood. If everyone only paid attention to the few people living in dire conditions in their vicinity, we could make great progress.” According to Ágnes Varga, Deputy Director of the Hungarian Red Cross, one can make a difference just by paying attention.

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Photo: Márk Horváth

Speaking of the methods of providing assistance, the methodological co-worker of the Hungarian Baptist Aid said that a couple of forints or a sandwich can make a difference, but if somebody would like to help in a more efficient way, they may choose from several types of volunteering: they may join a professional organization or find smaller movements. For instance, a group of university students in Szeged regularly walk the streets in the winter to help the homeless with tea, medications, and blankets. Others invite homeless people to picnics and sit beside them and have a conversation with them.

In the matter of whether “to give or not to give”, the Vice President of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta urged everyone to give, if they had the means. And what is even more important, is that he or she should not try to instruct a homeless person during those couple of minutes when they meet in the underpass. “Ask them their name and call them by their name the next day! This is an excellent exercise. It is possible that no one has called them kindly by their name in the past twenty years.” Miklós Vecsei considers the role of schools and parents important on this issue: “If our children were to grow up knowing that the homeless are not mean, then another world could be around the corner.”

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A recurring theme in public discourse is the number of beds at homeless shelters. Why does a homeless person not go to a sheltered place if he or she has the opportunity? According to Gellért Ghyczy it is difficult to imagine a state when someone has nowhere to go and that person spends the entire day in the street. “He may hide in a basement, people may place a glass of warm tea for him in the staircase, or he may be asked to look after a car for a hundred forints. If he is part of a local community, then a night shelter may not be an alternative for him.” Péter Varga added: “Everyone strives for a point of stability in their lives: even for a single sheet of cardboard at the bottom of a staircase, where they may return. This is generally missing at a shelter.”

For homeless people, besides their living space and their daily food, their future is also uncertain. For most of them, they only have a single goal: to survive this day. And how will they get that far? “For many there is a breaking point in their lives, when they start to go down. This is similar to a first, real, deep disappointment in love” – according to Miklós Vecsei, if we can imagine this state enduring for a long time that is what loneliness experienced in homeless existence must feel like. “Just as after a breakup, in this case as well, healing is brought on by another set of eyes. The purpose in the life of a human being is another human being. Social workers should accompany homeless people until they make such encounters.”

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Photo: Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta (Magyar Máltai Szeretetszolgálat)

Seeing such horrible misfortunes, how can one reconcile being sufficiently empathetic as a helper and not breaking under the weight? The Vice President of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta gave the answer to this question coming from the audience: “Empathy means that you try to see the world from the perspective of the person in need. You have to return to the world. If you stay there, you are dead. There is a fundamental rule in this profession: do not do assistance work on your own because you will fall apart! Being part of a community gives the strength to hold up.”

According to Ágnes Varga the key is to be open to the other person’s story.

“One can look for the points which are not about their current state. It is important that they feel that one is genuinely interested in their lives. One can get to know the stories of many different people when looking after homeless people. And curiosity does not cost money.”

Réka Szakszon

Translated by: Judit Varga