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Thursday, Aug. 31, 2006

FOUNDER AIMS TO HELP HOMELESS

M.crew offers work in the day, cheap bed at night


Staff writer

Three years ago, a 19-year-old man arrived in Tokyo from Kyushu to work at a security company.

News photo
M.crew Inc. President Osamu Maebashi shows a Rest Box room in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, on Friday. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTO

He soon realized it was not the right job for him and quit. With nowhere to go, he jumped when he saw an advertisement for M.crew Inc. -- day labor with cheap accommodations.

Six months later, the young man had saved 1 million yen, had a driver's license and had moved on to a permanent job.

That young man has inspired M.crew's founder and president, Osamu Maebashi, to expand his business to help more jobless -- and often homeless -- people to become financially independent.

"People who are one step short of becoming homeless come here," said Maebashi, 38, who started M.crew in 1997 with the name Trusty Inc.

M.crew sends day-laborers to building sites in the Tokyo metropolitan area, where they mostly do work like installing kitchenettes in apartments.

One of the benefits of working at M.crew is the firm's Rest Box dormitories, where workers can get a bed for as little as 1,480 yen per night.

The company claims that its dorm rates enable a person to live on 1 million yen a year.

About 2,000 people up to age 60 have registered to use the Rest Box since it opened in 2003.

Currently about 130 people live in the firm's 21 dorms in central Tokyo. Each room has bunk beds, TVs, a bathroom, shower and washing machine.

According to Maebashi, Rest Box users can be divided into three groups -- people in their 20s who come to Tokyo full of dreams; those in their 30s who are long-term part-time workers; and those over 40 who have been laid off.

"People in their 40s and 50s think that the young generation is naive with all their hopes and dreams, and the younger ones work harder thinking they don't want to end up like their elders," said Maebashi.

He said that having the different generations living together in the same dorm room gives people the opportunity to see their own lives from different perspectives.

Currently, M.crew only offers the Rest Box service to Japanese male workers. Maebashi believes that it would be difficult for women to do M.crew jobs because of the heavy physical labor and that most foreigners cannot legally do the unskilled labor.

The Rest Box was exactly what Maebashi needed a decade ago, when he was living on the streets.

Born and raised in Chiba Prefecture, Maebashi dreamed of becoming a professional surfer. By the time he was 21 he had given up on that and headed for Tokyo to find work.

"At first, I stayed at those capsule hotels and worked at construction sites that paid me at the end of each day," he said.

Soon, he had to choose between eating and paying the rent. For two years, Maebashi slept in buildings' emergency staircases or in a corner of the construction site he had worked at that day.

He got food at the back of fast-food restaurants, where they would throw away hamburgers and fries every two hours, and found expired "bento" boxed meals behind convenience stores.

One day, when Maebashi was picking through the garbage at a convenience store, a homeless man grabbed his wrist and said: "Don't do it. You're an amateur. You'll die if you eat this."

Maebashi suddenly realized that he had become just like this ragged man.

"It hit me that I had come down that far," he said.

The young man started to work harder at his day-labor jobs and was soon in charge of sending workers to construction sites. He eventually started his own company at the age of 28.

M.crew is doing well. In fiscal 2005, it had a pretax profit of 77 million yen on sales of 700 million yen.

The idea for Rest Box was born when he realized a lot of laborers were sleeping regularly at a nearby 24-hour comic book cafe.

"Most of these people cannot pay rent by the month, so I decided to provide a place where they could pay by the day," he said. "I just created a system that I would have wanted."

The government is worried with the growing number of young people taking temporary and part-time work because they are not contributing fully to social security, which the nation will need more of to take care of the baby boomers, who are about to retire.

The government allocated 76 billion yen in the fiscal 2006 budget to encourage them to take permanent jobs.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the front-runner to become the next prime minister, also has been out in public promoting programs that would hopefully help people whose businesses and careers have failed get back on their feet.

But M.crew's Maebashi doesn't think using taxpayers' money is a good idea, saying that businesses like his can help people who need work. He said the government should focus on helping people who are in more desperate situations.

Maebashi's next big project is to introduce a similar program in the United States. He plans to fly to the U.S. in the fall to explore the possibility of starting a business there.

"We don't know if it will succeed because it is a different society with more ethnic groups" and a different security situation, he said. "But from what I see, there is a business chance in the U.S."



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