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Saturday, Feb. 3, 2007

Osaka plans another homeless eviction

Staff writer

OSAKA -- The Osaka Municipal Government is once again cracking down on the homeless, preparing to clear out a small group next week from a park that will be the site of a major international sporting event in August.

Homeless shelters in Nagai Park in Higashi Sumiyoshi Ward, Osaka
Homeless people often make use of shelters like these in Nagai Park in Higashi Sumiyoshi Ward, Osaka. ERIC JOHNSTON PHOTO

The city is also discussing whether to remove from the city register the address of a squatting spot in Nishinari Ward that about 3,500 homeless people are using to get government services and aid.

Osaka has threatened to evict, by force if necessary, about 10 homeless men living in Nagai Park in Higashi Sumiyoshi Ward on Monday. The park will be the main venue of the International Association of Athletics Federations 2007 World Championships, from Aug. 25 to Sept. 2.

The eviction comes less than two weeks after the Osaka High Court overturned a district court ruling that would have allowed Yuji Yamaguchi, 56, to register Ogimachi Park as his residence. Yamaguchi has been living in Ogimachi Park, in Kita Ward, since 2004.

The city welcomed the high court decision, seeing it as a legal precedent that will allow officials to take tougher action against Osaka's estimated 5,000 homeless, who live at more than 700 locations in the city.

But without a long-term solution, the homeless problem will never be solved, according to the homeless and their supporters.

"Many of the homeless are now elderly and will soon need to be taken care of because they won't be able to work. Where will they go?" Yamaguchi asked after the high court ruling. "The city has yet to seriously address the problem of the aged homeless."

Osaka has had a large homeless problem for a long time. During the 1990s, the city all but ignored them despite warnings from homeless support groups, local residents and the central government that it needed to address what was becoming a serious woe.

"Local business leaders, many who did not actually live in Osaka, pressured local politicians to prioritize spending tax money on construction projects that benefited big business," said Yoneko Matsuura of the local watchdog group Mihariban. "Little attention was paid to the homeless problem until it became too great to ignore."

In 2000, Osaka put the number of homeless at 10,000, and said they were living in nearly 2,500 different locations around the city. Social workers and others did their own surveys and said the true number was 15,000, three times the number in Tokyo, which has three times Osaka's population.

Concerned about Osaka's reputation as a mecca for people with nowhere to live, the city finally began addressing the problem in 2000, when Osaka began to mount its campaign to get the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The city built five social welfare centers offering three meals a day and assistance in finding steady employment. Local firms were encouraged to hire the homeless and a number of employment programs were started.

But homeless people are routinely denied national health-care coverage and other official support because they must have a registered address to qualify for state and municipal benefits.

Late last year, the government learned that nearly 3,350 people living in Nishinari Ward had registered their residence as Kamagasaki Liberation Hall, a small space where people often squat or gather to socialize.

Police suspect the registrations are a scheme by the underworld to get money from municipal aid programs. The city has said it is looking at the registrations and will decide by the end of the month whether to remove them from the registry.

Earlier this week, there were sit-ins in front of Osaka City Hall and the Nishinari Ward office demanding the address be allowed.

"The registration forms were filled out properly," said Michio Kato, a homeless man from Nishinari. "For years, the city has been telling us that unless we had a place of residence, we wouldn't be eligible for any assistance. Many of us have been living in the hall for years, so why not make it our official residence?"

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The Japan Times Feb. 3, 2007

Article 3 of 9 in National news

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