Budapest bikers hand out sandwiches and hope for Christmas

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - On a chilly evening before Christmas, more than a dozen cyclists emerge from the basement of an old apartment building in Budapest with backpacks full of sandwiches to feed the homeless.

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They are the Budapest Bike Maffia, a voluntary organization that brings together people who love cycling and want to help those in need.

“It is not only good to give, but it’s our obligation. It simply gives a positive experience when we can help someone,” said Zoltan Havasi, 43, who gave up his job as a graphic designer when he founded the Bike Maffia 8 years ago.

They have around 150 volunteers in Budapest and dozens more in other Hungarian cities.

“The Budapest Bike Maffia team are great ... and people are so open to those who want to join that this has created a true community,” Havasi said.

On Tuesday, riding through Budapest streets decorated with Christmas lights, they distributed 4,000 meals to those in need.

Hungary’s nationalist government made rough sleeping a crime last year and gave police the power to order homeless people to move into shelters.

There are around 4,500 homeless people living in shelters in Budapest and about 1,200 more on the streets, said Peter Gyori, chairman of the Menhely (Shelter) foundation, adding that the bikers’ work was a “great initiative”.

The Budapest Bike Maffia runs several projects, including the “vitamin commando”, when they distribute blankets, foam mattresses, winter coats and sandwiches twice a week.

Noemi Poos joined the Bike Maffia four years ago to overcome her fear of riding in the city. Since then she has become an avid biker and a helper at the charity.

“There is this rock ‘n’ roll feeling. It sounds really cool that we get together and go around town by bike. We help people and we also have a great time,” she said.

In a shelter, two young guys are given sandwiches and blankets, which they say come in handy in the cold.

“And you don’t even want anything in return,” one of them says with a smile.

Reporting by Krisztina Fenyo, Balazs Kaufmann; Writing by Krisztina Than; Editing by Giles Elgood