Tokyo’s homeless get chance to rent rooms

Metro government scheme to promote 'entry to local community'

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The Tokyo Metropolitan Government will launch a program later this month to rent out rooms in private apartments and public housing to the capital’s homeless, who number more than 5,000.

In a joint project with Tokyo’s 23 special wards, the metro government said in February that it would rent out 2,000 apartment rooms in the next two years to people who currently live in Tokyo’s parks.

Designed to promote an “entry to local community” for the homeless, it will be the first such program by local governments nationwide. Under the program, homeless people can live in modest-size apartments for around 3,000 yen per month for at least two years.

Tokyo’s current policy toward the homeless problem has focused on helping them find jobs first.

Metro government officials said Tokyo’s new approach is meant to help people prepare to live an independent life “in a condition closer to normal life.”

“Having their own residence will be the first step for self-dependent life, which, in turn, will work as an initiative for people to pursue financial independence,” an official at the metropolitan government’s Bureau of Social Welfare said.

A survey by the metro government in February found that there were 5,365 homeless people in Tokyo.

The metro government has set up five “self-dependence centers,” which are temporary dorms with job counseling services. But such a short-term approach has often fallen short of helping people who have lived on the streets for years to return to social life, the official said.

“It is hoped that the program, by helping (the homeless) lead a community life, will give them a sense of discipline as members of society,” he said.

Later this month, the metro government is slated to start interviewing potential applicants from among the people currently living in five public parks known for their dense concentration of homeless people: Yoyogi Park, Shinjuku Chuo Park, Toyama Park, Sumida Park and Ueno Park.

Successful applicants will initially be temporarily admitted to private shelters for homeless people that are run by nongovernmental organizations commissioned by local authorities. At the shelters, they will receive medical checkups and counseling to prepare them to live alone.

After they move into their own apartments, the metro government will employ them in the first six months in such jobs as cleaning or guarding public spaces to help them become financially independent.

Entrusted NGOs will continue to offer employment and welfare counseling after this period. To further force them to become financially independent, their rent contracts under the program will expire after two years.

Under the program, the metro government will seek apartment rooms with rents ranging between 40,000 yen and 50,000 yen, at market prices. It has earmarked 600 million yen for the program for the current fiscal year, including 380 million yen to rent apartment rooms.

Homeless people and members of NGOs supporting such people seem to welcome the move.

A 49-year-old resident of Shinjuku Chuo Park said he had moved to the park from areas around JR Tokyo Station two months ago after hearing a rumor that the first group of candidates for the program will be selected from among residents of the park.

“I feel my body has been weakening day by day through life without a roof, and I now want to find a place before it becomes too late for me to work,” the man said. Having a fixed address will be a huge advantage in seeking employment at job centers, he added.

The homeless population at the park has increased by some 50 percent to 300 since the project was announced in February, local government officials said.

The Shinjuku Ward Office has responded by installing security guards to block homeless people from other areas of Tokyo and adjoining municipalities from living in the park.

Kazuaki Kasai, the 42-year-old head of an NGO aiding homeless people in the Shinjuku area, said the program is revolutionary because the government is counting heavily on each homeless person’s aspiration and ability to live an independent life.

“The government is providing shelter for two years, trusting each person, and the success of this approach depends on whether the homeless people can live up to the government’s trust in them,” he said.

But Kasai said that even if the program removes many people from the streets, it is questionable whether it can solve Tokyo’s homeless problem. It might lure homeless people from other municipalities, as seen in the case of Shinjuku Chuo Park, he said.

“If the program succeeds, other municipalities should promptly follow Tokyo’s steps,” he said.