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Tuesday, July 30, 2002

New law may raise prospects for homeless

But reality of attaining independence beyond welfare pay a tall order

Staff writers

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.

News photo
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 anyway."

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 streets.

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 available.

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 burden.

"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 us."

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 month.

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 work.

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

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 said.

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