Shelter plan for park’s homeless hit

Problem is being swept under rug before Asian Games: locals

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — A municipal government plan to build temporary shelters for homeless people living in a park that will host next year’s East Asian Games has received heated criticism from area residents, who have gathered over 22,000 signatures in protest.

Over the past three years, Nagai Park, a 65-hectare facility that includes a stadium and other sports facilities, has become a haven for homeless men.

Local residents blame the increase partly on an ordinance, passed in the mid-1990s, which forced residents to separate burnable and unburnable trash. The homeless collect bottles and cans, of which there is an abundance in the park, and exchange them for cash at a recycling center.

The city’s answer has been to propose building shelters to house 480 of the estimated 500 homeless now in the park. The facilities, the city assured local residents, would be temporary, only in existence for about three years.

“We were told that 15 men a month would be moved out of the shelters over a three-year period. But the city assumes there are jobs for these men. There aren’t, because the economy is bad and most of them are too old for heavy construction work,” said Hiroshi Yamada, a local resident who is leading a group opposed to the city’s plans.

After forming opposition groups to stop the plans, though, Yamada and other residents got a surprise.

“Several of us were visited by Toshio Kita, an Osaka city official involved with the 2001 East Asian Games,” said Teruo Komatsu, an Osaka City University professor involved in the opposition campaign. “He asked us not to oppose the temporary shelter plans for fear it would negatively impact Osaka’s hosting the East Asian Games and the 2002 World Cup.”

Kita was unavailable for comment, but, in any case, the request has not quelled the opposition.

The city’s homeless problem is rapidly shaping up to be a major headache for Osaka officials. Osaka now has an estimated 10,000 homeless — half the nation’s total in a city with only one-third the population of Tokyo. In the city’s few parks, blue plastic tarps, used as tents, are ubiquitous, and homeless men can be seen pawing through the garbage or sleeping on the streets.

But beginning in February, nonvoting International Olympic Committee officials are expected to visit Osaka, and the East Asian Games will take place in May. Osaka officials fear the sight of so many homeless will hurt the city’s reputation at a time when even Mayor Takafumi Isomura admits Osaka desperately needs international media attention in order to stand a chance of winning the 2008 Olympics.

At a hearing with residents last week, city officials provided a basic outline of their plans — 20 prefabricated buildings, which would include 15 sleeping quarters, three common rooms and two buildings for administration. The 15 sleeping quarters could house 32 people each, and would include toilet and shower facilities.

“The plans are still vague, though. The city did not say when construction would begin or where within the park the facilities would be located,” Komatsu said.

Rather than offering a detailed alternative to the city’s plan, opponents are expressing their anger over the city’s approach to the problem — announcing it would build the facilities within the park, one of Osaka’s biggest and most used, without first consulting local residents.

Appeals to politicians and bureaucrats yielded no satisfactory answers, so those opposed launched a petition drive to stop the construction. The drive has netted over 22,000 signatures to date.

City officials have stressed repeatedly that they are doing their best to care for the homeless. But nonofficial surveys by those working with the homeless suggest such efforts may be misdirected.

In August, a group of volunteers from Osaka’s Airin day-laborer district conducted a survey of 126 homeless living in Nagai Park. The men were asked if they felt the facilities were necessary, and if they would be willing to move to the Nagai Park facilities.

“A total of 102 of the 126 said the facilities weren’t necessary and that they would not move in,” Yamada said.

Over the next few months, residents will continue to gather signatures. For the moment, Komatsu said, there are no plans to take legal action against the city, as everyone hopes that a solution for the homeless of Nagai Park and the whole city can be found.

“The opposition to the shelters started off as a very local problem, but has grown to encompass the larger question of how to deal with all of the homeless living in Osaka,” he said.