Osaka plans another homeless eviction

by Eric Johnston

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 WIDTH="250" HEIGHT="188"/> 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?”