Park-area locals want plebiscite to halt plan for homeless shelters

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — Tensions continue to rise between Osaka officials and residents living near Nagai Park over a municipal plan to build shelters for the park’s homeless, with those opposed calling for a plebiscite on the issue.

At the end of October, the city of Osaka announced that it would start constructing 20 prefabricated buildings on the southeast corner of Higashi Sumiyoshi Ward’s Nagai Park, one of Osaka’s oldest and biggest parks. Construction is planned to begin next week, to be completed by mid-December, and will provide shelter for 350 of the nearly 400 homeless men living in and around the park.

But last Wednesday, nearly a dozen residents living near the park met with Osaka city officials to try to halt the project. The group represents nearly 30,000 city residents who have signed a petition opposed to the shelters.

The group presented three demands. First, they called on the city to hold a plebiscite among registered voters who live within 1 km of Nagai Park. Second, they asked the city to build two welfare facilities for homeless people, one in Sumiyoshi Ward and one in Higashi Sumiyoshi Ward. And third, they demanded that Osaka decide on a long-term policy to deal with the city’s nearly 10,000 homeless.

Although they want a plebiscite only among residents within a 1 km radius of the park, it is unlikely Osaka officials will grant such a request. Legally, a citywide plebiscite could be proposed if at least 2 percent of about 2 million voters in Osaka, or 40,000 people, call for a plebiscite.

However, as was seen in the case of the Kobe airport controversy, the government has the prerogative to reject such a proposal.

Some of those opposed say that, realistically, in order to get the municipal assembly to act, signatures from more than half of Osaka voters, or over 1 million people, would be needed.

The problem of what to do with the homeless is nothing new in Osaka — which, with nearly 10,000 homeless, has half the nation’s total despite being one-third the size of Tokyo.

For several years, residents of the city’s Kamagasaki area, a traditional day-laborer’s district with the largest population of homeless, have called on the city to draw up plans to deal with the homeless. Last year, residents staged a sit-in in front of City Hall to draw attention to their plight.

In the case of Nagai Park, residents say plans were decided upon unusually quickly. The reason, they said, had less to do with concern for the homeless than with concern about a potential international public relations embarrassment.

“City officials want to put up shelters as quickly as possible, because International Olympic Committee officials are visiting Nagai Park next February,” charged Kazuko Tatsumi, a local resident who is leading an effort to halt the project.

Her comments are echoed by other residents.

“With the IOC visit next winter, the East Asian Games in May and the World Cup in 2002, Osaka is rushing to make sure the homeless are hidden away,” resident Takafumi Tikamatsu said. “But the plan for Nagai Park does nothing to solve the long-term homeless problem.”

Osaka denies that it’s rushing to complete construction before the IOC arrives in February to inspect the northwest corner of the park where Nagai stadium is located. But they have admitted to visiting Tatsumi and others opposed to the project and asking them to drop their opposition out of fear of problems arising with the organizers of the East Asian Games, which are planned for Nagai stadium.

The city also said the shelters would be in place for only three years, during which those living there would be moved out to other locations. But residents are worried that this may not actually happen.

in a series of demands delivered to the mayor last week, the residents cited a number of reasons why they oppose the plan. In particular, they noted that the city could not guarantee that the shelters would close in three years because the homeless, mostly older men with few prospects for employment, have nowhere else to go.

The next step in the campaign to stop construction is unclear. Last week, residents alternated between threatening to campaign to recall the mayor and saying they would take less drastic measures, including asking the city to conduct a survey on the number of registered voters within 1 km of the park.

However, with construction of the shelters due to begin next week, time is running out.

“We will continue to fight, however,” Tikamatsu said. “A lot of people are opposed to the park and the way the city has handled the issue.”