[Hpn] Osaka, Japan - New law may raise prospects for homeless - The Japan Times - July 30, 2002

H. C. Covington H. C. Covington" <icanamerica@bellsouth.net
Tue, 30 Jul 2002 08:50:27 -0500

New law may raise prospects for homeless 
But reality of attaining independence beyond welfare pay a tall order
HIROSHI MATSUBARA - The Japan Times - July 30, 2002

In the Kamagasaki day-laborer district of Osaka, news about the
soon-to-be passed bill to provide aid for the nation's homeless has
been greeted with a mixture of hope and indifference.

A homeless man flattens empty cans he has collected to exchange for
money in front of his lean-to in Osaka's Tennoji Ward.

"We really need help, especially with housing," said Hiroyuki
Sekimoto, a homeless man who has lived in the area for two years.
"Things aren't so bad, now that the weather is warm. But every winter,
some of the older men die on the streets. If this bill means that
people can get off the streets, then I'm all for it."

"It's not going to make any difference," said Yasuo Nishitani, another
homeless man. "The politicians say that they'll help us find
employment. But most of us are old and can't work like we used to,
and, in this lousy economy, there aren't any jobs for people like us

The legislation, set to be enacted by the Upper House on Wednesday --
the final day of the current Diet session -- marks the first time the
central government has acknowledged it has a responsibility to help
local governments deal with the homeless.

According to statistics released in 2001 by the Health, Labor and
Welfare Ministry, there were about 24,000 homeless people throughout
the country. The figure today is said to have surpassed 30,000.

The new legislation provides for government assistance to homeless
people who are willing to seek employment and a life off the

Specifically, the legislation guarantees assistance in seeking
employment, as well as help for moving into either public housing or
private apartments for those who are willing to find jobs. In
addition, health care and medical facilities are to be made

In the case of Osaka, whether to build more facilities for the
homeless has become a major bone of contention between city officials
and local residents.

Members of nongovernmental organizations estimate that between 10,000
and 12,000 homeless, almost half the nation's total, now live in the
city of Osaka. But the three municipal centers set up to care for them
only hold 280, and remain full.

"It's clear that if more centers for the homeless are to be built,
there will be opposition from local residents who don't want such
facilities in their neighborhoods, and that's going to be a problem
that local governments will have to deal with carefully," said
Hironori Masuda, a volunteer worker supporting homeless people who
testified in a Diet hearing in favor of the bill.

In winter 2000, Osaka learned just how strong opposition could be when
it announced it was going to build temporary housing units inside
Nagai Park for some of the estimated 400 homeless people who were then
living in the area.

Local citizens' groups, fearing the city meant to establish a
full-scale homeless center despite official promises to the contrary,
vigorously protested the construction of the facilities.

In the end, the temporary shelters were built and over 100 men were
housed in them beginning in December 2000. Since then, they have
either moved into three assistance centers in other parts of the city,
found work, or left Osaka.

Today, there are only 37 occupants in the Nagai facility and city
officials say it will be shut down by the end of this year.

"Other support centers might be established around Osaka under the new
law, said Yukio Morita, director of the Nagai facility. "But the
facility at Nagai Park will not be turned into a new center. We
promised local residents that the shelter would only be in operation
through the end of 2002, and we will close down at that time."

Like other Osaka officials in the city's social welfare department,
which provided informal advice to Diet members in drafting the
legislation, Morita said he hopes the new law will encourage the
homeless to stand on their own feet.

"The new law will hopefully assist homeless people in getting back
into mainstream society, rather than just giving them handouts and
expecting nothing in return," he said.

Municipalities hit hard by the growing homeless problem in the past
decade have high hopes that the new law will help alleviate their

"It is a significant step that all the municipalities are held
responsible for tackling their own homeless problems," said Shigeru
Matsuda, chief manager of the social welfare section in Tokyo's Taito
Ward. "We hope it will alleviate the burden shouldered by
municipalities that have a high concentration of homeless people, like

Taito Ward has the highest concentration of homeless people in Tokyo,
with about 1,300.

With the cooperation of nonprofit organizations, it has helped
homeless people obtain a fixed address, a basic requirement for
receiving public livelihood assistance of 130,000 yen per person per

As a result, in 2000, 15.8 percent of the ward's 92.3 billion yen in
annual expenditures was spent on livelihood assistance for about 5,300
people, most of whom were formerly homeless. The spending amounted to
5.8 percent more than the ward spent five years ago.

However, the fact that Taito Ward provides better welfare aid to the
homeless has attracted more of them from neighboring cities that have
long neglected their welfare role, Matsuda said.

"Municipalities in neighboring prefectures even ask homeless people to
head for our ward, and even provide them with transportation fees," he
said. "We hope that the new law will raise the sense of responsibility
among other municipalities."

While the new legislation appears to have the support of many homeless
people and those who work with them, there is concern about a
provision that allows local governments to take measures beyond
financial assistance.

This provision is being interpreted by some as a tool that could be
used to forcibly evict those who prefer not to enter the government's
housing assistance centers for personal reasons.

"This bill is the legal justification authorities need to round up the
homeless and forcibly put them into official facilities without regard
to their rights," said Hiroshi Inagaki, who works for a
Kamagasaki-based labor union. "Officials are more interested in
cracking down in the name of public safety and public image."

Questions remain as to what kind of assistance the legislation will
provide for homeless people who are unable to work for reasons of
health or age.

A city survey in early 2001 showed that nearly 70 percent of Osaka's
homeless were between the ages of 50 and 70. Over one-third say they
have health problems, but Osaka officials admit that percentage is
probably higher because many homeless may not want to admit, or are
even unaware, they have certain medical problems.

"There's no doubt that this legislation will assist those who want to
work," said one city official, speaking anonymously, who works with
the homeless in Kamagasaki. "But a lot of Osaka's homeless are too
old, too sick, or too depressed to go back to work."

It is not easy for homeless people to achieve independence through
employment, even when they are relatively young and highly willing to
work, said an official of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which has
operated public shelters to help homeless people find jobs since
November 2000.

"The homeless population in Japan is in large part former day-laborers
who worked only in the construction industry," said Mikio Ikeda, an
official of the metro government's welfare bureau in charge of
homeless issues.

"The job prospects in that industry are still gloomy. While the law
emphasizes the importance of homeless people achieving economic
independence, there will not be much the public sector can do in that
respect," he said.

Currently, Tokyo runs four assistance centers, housing up to 346
people who are qualified based on their experience and willingness to

During their two- to three-month stay in the facilities, they visit
public job-placement centers daily while receiving job and other

Ikeda said 1,283 have so far left, but that 693 of them, or 54
percent, did so without finding jobs.

Even for those who found work, their job opportunities were limited to
certain areas, such as sanitation, security and simple manual labor,
he added.

"After all, the most practical measure to help people get off the
streets will be merely granting them livelihood assistance," Ikeda

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H. C. [Sonny] Covington, Editor
Homeless and Housing News