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Friday, May 17, 2002

KANSAI BEAT

Osaka homeless fear evictions

City worried about image ahead of World Cup games


Staff writer

OSAKA -- For Kazutoshi Nishimura, a 61-year-old homeless man who, in his own words, is retired and living on a park bench near Nagai Park, the approach of the World Cup soccer finals in June is a case of deja vu.

News photo
Steel fences have been erected in Nagai Park to keep Osaka's homeless out.

"I remember about two years ago, we kept hearing rumors that the homeless in Nagai were going to be swept off the streets because the International Olympic Committee officials were going to be in town," he said.

"This time, though, we're wondering if the city isn't going to crack down much harder," Nishimura said.

Osaka is hosting two World Cup matches at Nagai Stadium, which is located inside the park, and the city apparently wants to keep the homeless away from people attending the games.

According to the Association of Nagai Park Homeless, which consists of the homeless in the area and local volunteers, there are now about 40 homeless in the park compound and its vicinity.

That is a fraction of the hundreds who lived in the park in fall 2000.

Those who have stayed refuse to move despite repeated requests from the city.

For the past several weeks, members and supporters of the association have braced for a confrontation with city and police officials.

"I think it's inevitable that the city will take some sort of measures against the homeless before the start of the World Cup, though where they will put them is an open question," said Yuriko Horiuchi, who occasionally volunteers to help the homeless in Osaka Castle Park.

The municipal government is keeping quiet on whether it will launch a roundup of the homeless prior to the first World Cup match at Nagai Stadium on June 12.

In mid-January 2001, when Osaka was pursuing its unsuccessful bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, temporary shelters for about 350 people were built in a corner of the park just prior to an inspection of the stadium by the International Olympic Committee.

The shelters were erected after city officials failed in negotiations to have the homeless leave the park voluntarily.

There were fears among the homeless that the city would physically evict them from the park -- as had happened in the Nishinari district -- and dump them in the facility.

In the end, the situation was settled peacefully, with most of the homeless entering the shelter voluntarily.

Since then, many of the initial residents have moved out to homeless shelters and welfare facilities in other parts of the city, and the Nagai shelter has been substantially scaled down, with only about 90 men -- roughly full capacity -- remaining.

Some 40 others live in their own makeshift tents in the park.

Early this year, after the association refused the city's request for homeless men not accommodated in the city-built shelter to leave the park, officials had a steel fence constructed around some areas to keep the homeless away.

The fence it to remain until the last quarterfinal match is played in Osaka on June 19.

One municipal official involved in the management of Nagai Park, speaking anonymously, suggested that hordes of homeless men in the streets during the World Cup would be bad for the city's image.

"Nigeria and England play each other, so there will be lots of English media not just around Nagai but throughout Osaka. The last thing Osaka officials want is for the foreign media here to cover the game to be distracted by large groups of homeless men wandering around the streets," the official said.

The exact number of homeless, many of whom live in Osaka Castle Park, Ogimachi Park, or the Kamagasaki district, is unknown.

Estimates by local nongovernmental organizations range between 10,000 and 15,000, while the city claims the total is around 9,000. Many are "semi-homeless," living in apartments when they have money, but taking to the streets temporarily when money runs out.

City officials also claim it is an issue of public safety, saying that they want to avoid possible violence involving the homeless.

"Making sure that the homeless are not in the stadium and are not blocking other major train and subway stations will make it easier for the thousands of fans to get around Osaka and will reduce potential confrontations between the homeless and foreign visitors," the city official said.



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