Witnessing Poverty in Hungary Up-Close
I’ll be the first to admit that I live in a bubble in Budapest. A very nice and metaphorical bubble.
I attend an excellent university. I have a plethora of resources at my disposal and a lovely home to go home to every day (a student dormitory, but who’s arguing here), and the capacity to live a safe and high-quality life. I hate to call myself privileged, but that’s how it feels like here.
Budapest is a city of contrasting realities. Its history is one of impressive feats, yet one of also immeasurable tragedies. Its inner-city would make any tourist believe that she is living in one of the most glamorous countries in the world, yet, this becomes less and less real the further off the tourist path you veer.
Budapest is a city of contrasting realities. Its history is one of impressive feats, yet one of also immeasurable tragedies.
As I undertake a roughly 40-minute commute to school everyday, a relatively far distance for a city of two million people, I need only walk through the underground passage that connects the bus and subway terminals to see what life outside of my bubble looks like. In the morning, a few men or women are usually sitting on the ground, holding up signs that I assume ask for spare change. Others are already playing musical instruments and performing in various ways in the hope that it will generate some money. It is not even 9 a.m. yet.
Navigating the various other subway lines during the day, you cannot bypass the poverty in Hungary. There are many panhandlers who either sit by the benches near the entrances or sometimes sleep on their mattresses in some of the more distant metro stations. You begin to recognize their faces, as they seem to be there, day in and day out. While some are a bit aggressive in their tactics, most are not. Many just seem extremely desperate.
When I return home in the afternoon, the sights have only fractionally changed. Instead, worn-out looking people try to hawk their goods to you, goods that are often as simple as umbrellas, but can also be flowers or vegetables. Frequently, it is the older women who are doing this, many of whom look like they should be at home, enjoying the dignity of retirement, rather than begging people to buy their wares. In the beginning, your heart breaks to see people in such circumstances. As time goes, this feeling becomes to unfortunately normalize.
Spots at homeless shelters are reported to be in extremely short supply as well as dangerous. Many would rather take their chances on the street, it seems.
Some people would argue that the transition to democracy and capitalism in the early 1990s made people worse off, as opposed to better. At least all people had jobs and roofs over their heads, many argue. Additionally, the sheer act of homelessness was recently made illegal in Budapest, in an extremely controversial move by the government. Spots at homeless shelters are reported to be in extremely short supply as well as dangerous. Many would rather take their chances on the street, it seems. It often seems hard to believe, but those that live in Budapest are still relatively better off than those in other more rural Hungarian cities.
I knew coming here that I’d face a different reality from most. While I know that other countries have it even worse off, the ability to put the sights I see on almost a daily basis in perspective is still nonetheless an extremely thought-provoking experience.