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Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Welfare eluding Osaka's 15,000 homeless

Social workers join chorus demanding aid, halt to city's big-ticket projects

Staff writer

OSAKA -- With a new study that claims the number of homeless in Osaka has now reached 15,000, volunteer social workers and the homeless themselves are calling on Osaka municipal and prefectural officials to stop pursuing schemes like new Olympic bids and pay more attention to social welfare.

Homeless men in Osaka Castle receive food from volunteers.

Despite Osaka's all-but-certain loss in the race for the 2008 Games, Mayor Takafumi Isomura announced in late June that Osaka should try again, perhaps in 2016. Advocates for the homeless, however, are calling on officials to spend tax money on social welfare programs to get the homeless off the streets.

Since the collapse of the bubble economy a decade ago, the number of homeless men in Osaka has steadily risen. Many who had worked at construction sites are now living on the streets of Kamagasaki, the day-laborer's district, as well as in Osaka Castle Park, Nagai Park and several other places.

Officially, the city says the homeless numbered about 8,700 as of the end of 1999. That figure was the conclusion of a survey that was published earlier this year. But even when the report was released, some officials commented that the figure was probably too low and that the real number exceeded 10,000.

Now, Tetsuro Honda, a representative of the Kamagasaki Anti-Unemployment Union, which monitors the homeless in Kamagasaki as well as other parts of Osaka, says the union's own survey, conducted last month, shows the estimate of 10,000 appears out of date and that the real figure is approaching 15,000. If so, that would be nearly three times the official number of Tokyo's homeless.

"In Osaka Castle Park, the city's figures for the number of homeless are several hundred fewer than what our group found, and our figures were higher than official figures for other areas as well," Honda said. "When we added up our figures, we concluded that the number of homeless or 'semi-homeless' -- those who are only occasionally on the streets -- was about 5,000 more than the 10,000 figure previously accepted by volunteer groups."

The average age of Osaka's homeless was about 55, and some 80 percent had done construction or construction-related work, according to the surveys of both Honda's group and the city.

The discovery of more homeless people led Kamagasaki volunteers to submit a set of demands to both the city and the prefecture in mid-June. These include monthly meetings between citizens' groups, municipal and prefectural officials, expansion of job-placement services, a system to guarantee low income housing, and supply of food and medical services to those in temporary shelters.

What is not needed, both the homeless and the volunteers say, is more spending on big schemes that will add to the city's debt burden.

"The mayor said in late June that Osaka should try again for the Olympics. That's a waste of money. We have 15,000 homeless on the streets of Osaka who need help now," said Toshihiko Mita, a homeless man who lives in Osaka Castle Park.

"The construction industry has collapsed and the city is pouring money into areas of business investment like IT (information technology) and other sectors that will not benefit the homeless. Unless Osaka seriously tackles this problem now, the number of homeless will only continue to rise," Honda warned.

For their part, Osaka officials continue to say publicly that the number of homeless is about 8,700 -- or about 11/2 times Tokyo's figure of 5,800. However, whatever the true figure, they privately admit it is much higher and agree it is time for the city to seriously address the problem.

"What's the true number of homeless? No one knows. It might be 15,000, though. The mayor, some politicians and a few of these big companies want to spend tax money on another Olympic bid or more public works projects. But given the worsening homeless problem, that's a really bad idea," said a city official working on the problem, requesting anonymity.

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