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A first step to understanding the homeless

by Philip Brasor

The mayor of Kawasaki, Takao Abe, is currently under attack from a group of city residents who don’t want a planned homeless shelter put in their neighborhood. Last month, Abe rejected the residents’ request for a meeting to hear his explanation of why a disused chemical factory in the Tsutsumine district was being turned into a temporary shelter for 250 people who sleep on the streets around Kawasaki Station.

The residents are worried about security and a decline in property value, but the mayor dismissed their concerns out of hand, saying that the group’s request for 24-hour surveillance cameras and buses to transport the people who use the shelter through the neighborhood were both costly and an “abuse of human rights.” The mayor’s blunt, imperious attitude, which seems to stem from pressure to get the rubber-stamped facility built by March, has angered the residents even more.

Whether or not the group’s fears would have been allayed by a calm presentation of facts about homelessness is difficult to know. Such shelters have met similar resistance throughout Japan. Another residents group in Kita Kyushu is trying to block a homeless shelter that is being planned along a route that they say will be used by children going to school.

These people are either ignorant about homelessness or just plain paranoid. In terms of safety, homeless people have much more to fear from non-homeless people than vice versa. On the same day that Abe refused to talk with the Tsutsumine residents, two teenage boys were arrested for forcing a street person in Tokyo to jump in a river last June. He drowned. The boys said they didn’t care if he died because “homeless people were no good as humans.” It wasn’t an isolated incident.

It has been my experience that homeless people in Japan keep to themselves. Panhandling, a fairly common practice among the homeless in America, is almost non-existent in Japan. Government statistics state that more than 50 percent of Japan’s estimated 30,000 homeless hold down regular jobs. As pointed out at a joint British-Japanese seminar held in Tokyo last week, people’s reasons for living on the streets are often personal, meaning there are as many reasons for being homeless as there are homeless. However, the seminar also said that the main obstacles to re-entering society for Japanese homeless are structural: a welfare system that doesn’t acknowledge them and a housing culture that shuts them out.

In any case, there’s no proper explanation for the public’s irrational fear of them, but the media feeds this misunderstanding with coverage that treats the homeless as freaks. News stories either play up their victimhood or display them as colorful characters for whom living on the street is a lifestyle choice.

On its evening news show, Nippon TV has been running an occasional series on a group of saihokutan (northernmost) homeless men living in a small tent community in Asahikawa, Hokkaido. Approaching these men as if they were a rare species of water fowl, the reporters focus on the unbelievable circumstances of their existence — the below-zero temperatures, the scavenging for food that is often frozen, the general resourcefulness in terms of shelter and clothing. The reporters’ unending exclamations of “sugoi (wow!)” become cumulatively patronizing: the homeless as a source of cheap entertainment.

It’s therefore encouraging that the city of Kawasaki has adopted a documentary video about a homeless man as a “text” in its junior high schools. “Ashigara-san” follows a homeless man from the streets of Shinjuku to a group-home over the course of three years. The director, Motoharu Iida, is a volunteer who helps the homeless in the area around the West Exit of Shinjuku Station. Ashigara, a 67-year-old man who camped on the street, was a reluctant subject, but Iida found him compelling, first for his independence and later for his sense of humor. Whenever he saw him on the street, Iida made it a point to talk to him. Ashigara initially resisted, but presents of food and cigarettes and Iida’s obvious concern eventually break through his carapace of distrust.

Iida shows Ashigara urinating into grates and eating out of garbage bags. He is infested with lice and suffers from horrible sores on his legs. Iida talks him into going to a hospital, and there the viewer discovers the unique bonds that form between society’s bottom dwellers and the doctors, nurses, and social workers, whose job it is to keep them alive.

We see that the system does not care about someone like Ashigara, but that the individuals who operate it often do. Ashigara can receive welfare if he has a fixed address, but he opts to return to the street. Iida finds him months later sleeping under a train overpass. He is extremely weak and says he has been beaten up twice. A volunteer doctor says he must go back to the hospital and explains the bureaucratic difficulties of getting an ambulance to take him there. Ashigara is brought to the ward office, where he showers, and then walks to the hospital, where he’s treated for pneumonia. “I’m sorry for being so selfish,” he says to the people who help him.

The main value of “Ashigara-san” as an educational tool is in its low-key presentation. Iida is not a journalist. He doesn’t delve into Ashigara’s past or explain how he ended up on the street. He doesn’t take society to task. He simply and unsentimentally shows us a man who, for whatever reason, no longer has a place in society but rediscovers the warmth of human contact. Ashigara is not a scary person, only his situation is.