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Thursday, Oct. 21, 2004

Osaka eyes putting its homeless to work


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Facing central government cutbacks in financial aid to the homeless, Osaka officials are teaming up with the local business community to create a new program that will put some of Osaka Prefecture's estimated 7,700 homeless to work.

News photo
Homeless men talk in front of temporary housing in Osaka Castle Park earlier this month. ERIC JOHNSTON PHOTO

However, some homeless people and volunteer groups who assist them warn this is only a partial solution and urge more attention be given to the immediate welfare needs of street people.

Earlier this month, Mayor Junichi Seki chaired a meeting between officials from Osaka Municipal Government, the prefectural government, the Kansai Economic Federation, the Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and local labor officials.

The new group's mandate is to explore ways in which local businesses might employ homeless people for short periods to do certain types of skilled and unskilled labor.

"The homeless problem is one that the bureaucracy needs to target, but a full solution won't be found unless we have the cooperation of the local business community and of the labor unions," Seki said.

One of the proposals being considered is to hire day laborers for a maximum of three months, paying them up to 50,000 yen per month. Those with special skills would be given top priority in hiring.

The decision by government and business officials to work together comes about six months before a central government financial aid program expires. The subsidy allows Osaka Prefecture and Osaka city to hire homeless people to do cleaning work at local parks and roads.

Under the program, Osaka's homeless are paid 5,700 yen a day for cleaning parks and public roads. About 250 people a day take part in the campaign and a total of 3,100 people are now registered for this part-time work.

The purpose of the fund is to provide jobs to homeless people over the age of 55, many of whom who were too old to do other work.

The total budget for fiscal 2004 was 770 million yen, of which the central government contributed 620 million yen and the remaining 150 million yen came from the prefecture and the city.

But the central government has already informed Osaka officials that it will discontinue the subsidy after the fiscal year ends in March, forcing the prefecture and the city to explore other ways of funding programs to put the homeless back to work.

For some homeless, the news that the local government is now cooperating with the business community to assist them was greeted with mixed feelings.

Some welcomed the proposal, saying they were ready, willing and eager to go back to work.

"It would be great to be employed again, even for a few months," said Kiyoshi Sakai, who lives in Osaka Castle Park. "I hope they begin hiring soon, because winter's coming and I'd like to be able to have enough money to pay rent."

Others, however, said what they really need is permanent employment.

"Being able to work only for a few months doesn't mean anything if we're back on the streets again after the contract expires," said Jiro Nakamura, a homeless man in Nakanoshima park.

Itsuo Matsushige, head of a nonprofit organization that assists a large community of day laborers and homeless in Osaka's Kamagasaki district, said that while his group welcomes cooperation between the businesses and local governments to take on the issue, the new committee will likely only make a small dent in the problem.

"The mayor says the new committee will give priority to hiring those with special skills. But that's probably only 100 or 200 people in total," he said. "There is still the question about how to take care of everyone else."

There are currently an estimated 21,000 day laborers living in Osaka. Not all are homeless, but many are. Most are men in their 50s and 60s.

Matsushige also wants the new committee to focus on the immediate welfare problems faced by day laborers and the homeless.

In a survey conducted by his group in May, it was learned that only 25 percent of Kamagasaki day laborers were eating three meals a day. About two-thirds of the respondents said they were eating only one meal a day and about 10 percent said they sometimes went an entire day without eating anything.

Matsushige said his group is working with similar NPOs in Tokyo's Shinjuku district and the city of Kitakyushu to put pressure on the central government to enact new legislation that would provide additional money for the homeless.

In July, the three groups began collecting signatures in Osaka, Tokyo and Fukuoka, and now have more than 30,000.



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