BUDAPEST, Hungary – Homeless men and women huddle on street corners amid Budapest's majestic domed palaces, shivering under old blankets and cardboard boxes in frigid winter weather.
It's an image that critics say Prime Minister Viktor Orban doesn't want the world to see. And if he has his way, the homeless could be fined and even jailed for sleeping outside — even though some of the country's homeless shelters are already overflowing and short of beds.
Orban's punitive ideas for the homeless have set him up for his latest clash with the constitutional court and civil rights groups as he tries to reshape the country in a conservative image by centralizing power. Since winning power in 2010, Orban and his party have undermined independent institutions and democratic standards in a nation that was once an icon of democratic struggle for throwing off communism in 1989.
Now Orban is carrying out an informal referendum at town hall meetings around the country to gauge support for a constitutional amendment that would enshrine punishments for the homeless in the charter itself.
Hungary's homeless policy has revived accusations by human rights groups that Orban's ruling Fidesz party cares little about the country's disadvantaged. In just one recent controversy, one of the party's founding members, journalist Zsolt Bayer wrote in a newspaper column that many of the country's Gypsies, or Roma — an impoverished minority that faces entrenched discrimination — "are animals" and "unfit for coexistence."
Fidesz refused to distance itself from the column, saying it understood citizens' anger about crimes committed by Roma and called on those demanding Bayer's expulsion from the party "to refrain from standing on the side of the criminals."
The homeless issue has been brewing for several years. At the end of 2011, Orban's ruling right-wing Fidesz party used its overwhelming parliamentary majority to make the punitive regulations first introduced earlier that year by the Fidesz-backed mayor of Budapest — including fines of up to $650 for repeat offenders and the threat of up to 60 days in jail — applicable nationwide.
"This is a method to demoralize or intimidate us," said Gyula Balog, 53, who has been homeless for nearly 20 years. "No one was jailed but quite a few had to pay fines. It's frivolous to fine those who have nothing."
At the time, even the United Nations expressed concerns, saying the obligation to provide shelter "cannot serve as an excuse for the criminalization or forced detention of homeless persons."
"By a wave of the legislative pen, the Hungarian Parliament has labeled tens of thousands of homeless people in Hungary as potential criminals," said a statement from two U.N. human rights experts. "Moreover, the law has a discriminatory impact on those living in poverty."
At least 1,500 homeless are believed to be currently living rough in Budapest, even as temperatures are expected to remain below freezing in coming days and dozens of homeless are found frozen to death each year on the streets.
In the winter, many head to the warmest spots they can find, usually the entrance halls of subway stations, sometimes quietly holding out a paper cup for money from passersby or by selling street newspapers.
Authorities recently inaugurated two more shelters in the capital and the government spent 8.5 billion forints ($38.4 million, €28.9 billion) on the homeless in 2012, with a similar figure planned this year. But some of the most popular refuges, like the "Heated Street" run by the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood, are full far beyond capacity, with many people sleeping on mats on the floor.
The issue of the fines re-emerged in November when the constitutional court struck down the punishments, saying homelessness was a social issue that should not be handled as a criminal matter.
There are no exact figures on the number of homeless in Hungary, but the U.N. last year put the figure at between 30,000 and 35,000. A survey carried out each year on Feb. 3 in Budapest and the larger Hungarian cities by NGOs, counted 8,641 in 2012, up from 7,199 in 2011.
Many cities across the United States also ban activities such as "urban camping," panhandling, "lodging" outdoors and similar actions, often resulting in fines or jail time for offenders.
The Hungarian government argues that it is simply acting out of concern for the dozens of homeless people who freeze to death every year, implying that fines are meant to push the displaced to seek refuge in warm shelters.
"There are more places in heated shelters than there are homeless living in Hungary," Orban said last month in Parliament. "So no one ... is forced to survive winter under the open sky."
But social workers and the homeless themselves accuse the government of caring only about the country's image.
"They simply want to clean up the areas frequented by tourists," said Balog, speaking outside the department store where he sold Commodore 64 computers during communism, before losing his job and family because of his alcoholism.