The Streetlawyer Association protects the rights and interests of people – people who are homeless and/or living in housing poverty. Members working for the association are volunteer lawyers and law students. You can meet them in person at Blaha Lujza square on Friday afternoons. A member of the team talks about the organization and their current hiatus of in-person client service. Interview of Noémi Szabó with Dr. Ádám Takács.
Noémi Szabó/abitbetter: The Streetlawyer team consists mostly of law students and lawyers who have already graduated. How did you get on the team?
Ádám Takács/Streetlawyer Association: Whenever I went back home from the university for a few days, my train always departed from the Déli Railway Station. Sometimes I missed the last train and I had to wait three hours at the train station. At such times, I often struck up a conversation with the homeless people there so that I wouldn’t fall asleep – so I already had a kind of relationship with them.
At law school, we had to take several elective courses. I was a sophomore when I came across a course called “Streetlawyer Law Clinic”. It piqued my curiosity. The course began with an all-day workshop, during which we also got to know the association, the cases that are expected to come up, and homeless activists. I went to this class, and then I got hooked. Then we went out on a Friday with our mentors to the Blaha Lujza square. We had to choose a case, which we then took with the help of our mentor. I have been a member of Streetlawyers for four years since the course.
N.SZ.: Where do you work when you are not volunteering on the street?
Á.T.: I have been working at a law firm 40 hours a week for a year and a half. The office deals with corporate affairs and company law, it has nothing to do with homelessness.
N.SZ.: What motivates you to keep doing it week by week?
Á.T.: First and foremost, I would like to help these citizens in need. An average person often has trouble understanding complicated legal texts when they go into a government office or receive an official letter, and homeless people are in an even more vulnerable position in that regard. They are under constant attack just because they are in this horrible situation – most of the time through no fault of their own.
Besides, I have always wanted to take action and help change the world. I think it is also the job of a lawyer to take on pro bono (voluntary) cases from time to time. Thus, legal matters about their lives, such as the punishment of living in a public space as a way of life, not just go over their heads, but they understand the proceedings and can take action against them. Even the slightest help can mean a lot, so that is why it is so rewarding to support them.
And, last but not least, the company is good, and I learn a lot from my colleagues. Otherwise I would not have encountered these cases, not during my years at uni.
N.SZ.: How much time do you spend per week on providing legal assistance to homeless people?
Á.T.: It depends on how many cases I have at the same time. The minimum is 1-2 hours a week, the maximum is 20 hours. I would say on an average it’s about 4-5 hours a week.
What we do is we go to Blaha square on every Friday, we get to know the cases of the people who are asking for our help, and the lawyer who’s there at the time gets the case. If we have more than one case, we have more work with them.
N.SZ.: Why do you think the organization and the work you are doing there is important?
Á.T.: No organization in Hungary does what Streetlawyer does. There are legal aid organizations, such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (a civil human rights organization that protects human dignity and the rule of law), the HCLU (Hungarian Civil Liberties Union), the Hintalovon Children’s Rights Foundation, etc. But no one is concerned with the rights of homeless people. We are the only legal aid organization that specifically addresses their interests. Because the state is unwilling to view these citizens as humans, we are the ones trying to force it. We believe that everyone has the right to legal protection, we believe that the everyone has the right to housing, and that this right must actually prevail in Hungary.
Housing is the basis of everything, if someone doesn’t have access to it, it generates a lot of other problems, an inability to move on and recover from there.
In Hungary, even many of the people who have a home struggle. There are 30,000 homeless people in the country, and a significant proportion of the population lives in housing poverty. We consider those affected by housing poverty who are in a worse-than-average, more vulnerable situation in terms of affordability, housing quality, energy efficiency, and in regards of regional and legal aspects. According to a 2017 Eurostat survey, 30.6% of the population in Hungary spends more than 40% of their monthly income on housing-related costs.
There are 27 volunteer lawyers/law students in the organization who help homeless people and thus show the Hungarian society or even just the legal society that it is worth doing such work.
N.SZ.: What was your most memorable case so far?
Á.T.: The Fundamental Law treats homelessness as a crime instead of a social problem, which is why a big wave of criminalization started in the autumn of 2018 / spring of 2019, during which one of our clients was detained, but as the court could not determine that our client committed a violation, they were released from jail. The experience of waiting for him at the police station proved that what we do matters.
N.SZ.: And what was the most shocking?
Á.T.: When we visited shack dwellers and talked to them. When I say homeless or shack dweller, I already stigmatize them, but after talking to them for a minute, I immediately realize that they are people just like me. A woman took my hand and cried; it was so shocking that after that I reevaluated a lot of things in my life.
N.SZ.: In the work of a Streetlawyer, what are the most important, most frequently encountered areas of law?
Á.T.: Most of our clients are not homeless people, but people living in housing poverty. They come to us with lease disputes, for example because they don’t have a lease contract. They ask if they can be evicted. They ask for help to interpret the letter they received from the court or the police.
Sometimes they have defaulted on a loan and we “translate” the legal text of the letter from the collection agency for them.
We also have a lot of labor law disputes from people who are employed illegally and don’t get paid for their labor.
A homeless person is in front of the eyes of police officers all day in public areas, so they are more often punished for an offense like dropping a tissue.
The latest trend is for the government office to link the payment of social benefits to an annual review. So, for example, if someone has one of their legs cut off, they have to prove it every year. However, if they do not renew their medical certificate, the office will continue to transfer the allowance without being entitled to it. Then, at the annual review, all this will be revealed, and the benefit of HUF 300,000 will be reclaimed. They will then either have to repay in one go, or it gets deducted from their wage if they have a declared employment. Our job is to help with cases like this: we ask for the amount to be reduced or released out of fairness, as a homeless person does not have that much money in their pocket.
N.SZ.: You put in-person client service on a hiatus during the pandemic, but clients can reach you via phone or online. How much has the number of cases dropped? Is it possible for a homeless person to have a phone and internet access?
Á.T.: During an average personal client reception, lawyers pick up at least 2-2 cases and, beyond that, talk to at least 10-10 clients and give them one-sentence legal advice or refer them further. We are currently hosting an online client service on Facebook Messenger, here approx. half as many inquiries are received as a lawyer would normally receive on a usual afternoon at the Blaha. The number of emails is roughly similar.
We hope to return to the Blaha soon and work close to our clients again!
N.SZ.: Why is it worth joining you? What would you say to law students and already practicing lawyers?
Á.T.: Streetlawyer has an experiential capital in legal matters related to housing and violations, which I think is unique. We have at least 5 members who specialize in housing law, and there is plenty to learn from them.
The organization is open to everyone, we have admissions twice a year, and our strategic goal is to raise awareness among lawyers.
N.SZ.: What can we, non-lawyers, do against the injustices suffered by homeless people?
Á.T.: In everyday life, even small things can help a lot. If an average person sees a police officer harassing a homeless person, they can do the following:
- you can go there and ask the police officer what is happening,
- record the case, or
- you can contact us if you see someone being taken to the police.
As a volunteer, anyone can join The City is for All group to help their advocacy work.
Think about it: these people are not on the street voluntarily. Anyone who loses two months of income can easily end up on the streets. Don’t blame the homeless for being homeless!
Source of featured image: Streetlawyer Association
Original article here
Translation by Ágnes Sturcz