Habitat for Humanity in Budapest

Habitat for Humanity is an international NGO dedicated to improving housing conditions for poor people, fighting for a fair housing policy and decent homes for everyone. It was founded in 1976 in the U.S. and in 1996 in Hungary. It has affiliates in more than 70 countries and can count on thousands of volunteers. The organization has built or renovated over 800, 000 houses, and provided simple and affordable homes for over a million families. In Hungary, Habitat has helped 2,000 families.

Among the many programs that Habitat develops in Hungary, this Saturday we participated in the Housing First program where Habitat renovates vacant social rental housing units for homeless people, and support them with social work in order to help them keep their homes after moving in.

At 8:30 a.m. sharp we all gather in front of a house in Ujpest, in the 4th district of Budapest. We are nine including Sandor, the foreman, and Betty the representative from Saint Gobain, the sponsoring company. Proudly representing the Embassy there is Chris, Edward and Catherine.

Sandor gives us some background. In Hungary there are 383,000 empty houses or apartments and 300,000 families in need of decent affordable housing. 170 000 children live in a home with no indoor toilet, almost 200,000 in a home with no electricity, and 620 000 children (30% of all children) live in damp, moldy, unhealthy homes.

Above the porch it says ‘Tiszta Udvar, Rendes Haz’, which is a plaque you receive when all houses are in order and the garden is neatly arranged. A plaque they would never receive today!  After the entrance door and a short corridor there is an open air corridor leading to small houses with tiny weedy gardens on both sides and at the very end there is a piece of abandoned grassy and weedy land. The house we are going to renovate is the third one on the right. Sandor started yesterday and already removed all belongings and the old shower. Despite the open windows the stench of mold and mildew is strong. I wonder what had been stacked there and for how long. This house belongs to the municipality which is too poor to renovate it, therefore it has been abandoned. Once renovated, this house will be rented at lower-than-market price.

Sandor tells us: ‘you came here to build, well today is demolition day!’ He explains that when people are poor, they don’t try to renovate well because it costs too much and/or they lack the skills. So they just hide what is wrong instead of fixing the problem at its root. For example there was a leak here; it made the lower walls humid. Previous tenants just covered it with a carpet which prevented the water from evaporating so it traveled upwards until the entire wall, all the way up to the high ceiling, was damp. They did the same with the flooring. Yesterday Sandor and his volunteers removed the carpet and the flooring. Now we even need to remove the tiles, the stucco and the base floor completely and let the bricks breathe and dry. This is why Sandor works on two projects at the same time: to let enough time to dry when needed.

Besides destruction, there are also three truck-loads of aggregate for concrete that has been dumped on the sidewalk and needs to be brought to the end garden where it will be mixed with cement. About 30 fine cement bags are also stacked on the sidewalk, 55 pounds each, and about twenty 88-pound bags of mortar also wait in the truck.

Sandor gives us legal papers to sign. Everyone does so without reading much but a mention catches my eye. We have to ‘destroy’ our tee-shirt, the Habitat volunteer tee-shirt! Sandor explains that if we don’t, it has to be taxed!!! We all sign the paper … for the government. Then he hands us protection gloves, masks and goggles. I know goggles will fog with the mask and I might faint standing still all day hammering a wall not to mention my legendary clumsiness with a chisel and a hammer. When Sandor asks for wheelbarrow volunteers for the cement, aggregate for concrete and mortar I immediately raise my hand. Nobody else does. Then Edward joins me and then András. Chris will be on destruction duty with the others.

All day Edward, András and I fill wheelbarrows and carry them to the end garden where we build a neat, new pile. Since we only have two wheelbarrows for three, we rest in turn and when I rest, I garden or more exactly I weed! I discover a lot of purslane which most people don’t know about, or if they do they think it is a weed and don’t know how to name it. My grandfather taught me it was comestible, quite a delicacy even. Since it is a succulent, you find it in arid places, often between old stones or pavement.  Only in Mexico did I find it in supermarkets between lettuce and parsley! Quick recipe: blanch it, and then add your favorite sauce, for me a mixture of crushed garlic, mustard, Maggi (a specific wheat protein sauce, a bit similar to soy sauce), balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Let it cool and eat as a salad.

Our arms are aching but our legs are doing a big job too. I finish the day at over 17,000 steps!  At the end of the day Chris comes to help us with the cement bags that he loads on each shoulder. We leave just in time before Edward breaks his back. We ache all over but we feel good and will sleep like babies.  Till the next time!

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