Police have intervened in a long-running daily food service for the homeless in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, ordering volunteers who make and distribute onigiri rice balls each morning to shift from a spot they have used for years, said several individuals involved with the food service.
On Monday, a police officer approached a man handing out onigiri beneath a railway bridge near JR Shibuya Station, telling him the operation would no longer be tolerated at that location, the individual said. There are no commercial premises or residential buildings nearby and usually no pedestrians at 5:15 a.m., when the food delivery takes place.
The group of mainly foreigners has been helping feed Tokyo’s homeless for at least 29 years, said one volunteer who helps to coordinate the effort. They have used that particular spot for the past seven years without complaint, he said.
“I thought it was the perfect location,” the coordinator said. “The police are not bad guys. They don’t care (as long as) we are not putting garbage, or making noise. But as soon as someone complains, they have to ask us to leave.”
The group said police did not inform them of the nature of the complaint, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police declined to comment on the matter when contacted by a reporter.
In December, Shibuya Ward closed three public parks for an extended period over the New Year holiday to prevent well-wishers from conducting a holiday soup run for homeless people.
It is not known whether Shibuya Ward played any part in the latest development. Complaints can also be made by businesses or individuals.
Every day, foreign and Japanese volunteers make about 150 sour plum onigiri in a kitchen at the Franciscan Chapel Center in Roppongi, enough to feed between 70 and 80 homeless people, said a coordinator with the group. At times, they also distribute fruit, T-shirts and underwear.
On Wednesday, when a reporter accompanied the food service, about 40 homeless individuals were lined up to receive two individually packaged onigiri, plus a sachet of nori dried seaweed, a traditional combination.
One homeless man approached the reporter and expressed thanks for the food effort.
Another, who gave his name as Oliver, aged 41, took leftover rice balls and placed them outside the shacks of people who had slept through the distribution. He said the handouts are a central part of the daily routine of the homeless in the area.
He expressed no animosity toward the police, but said the possibility of police patrols means every morning he packs up the cardboard shack he sleeps in beneath a pedestrian bridge and sets it out again later in the day.
The food volunteers are mostly foreigners drawn from Tokyo’s Catholic, Protestant and Mormon communities, but they include large numbers of nonchurch contributors, including corporate teams from local offices of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. and State Street Corp., said the Rev. Russell Becker, pastor of the Franciscan Chapel Center.
“We’re in a difficult position because we’re guests in somebody’s country. We’re foreigners and we see things that people who live here don’t see or don’t want to see, and we want to help,” Becker said.
He said the program meets a clear need for the homeless living in Shibuya, who may get no other assistance.
“It highlights the fact that the government doesn’t have any programs for them, that people have learned to push people to the edges by just ignoring that they exist,” he said.
Becker said the food service prides itself on having provided the service for so long, uninterrupted.
“What we’ve done is we’ve made the homeless a member of our family, and you can’t take off a day feeding your family. It’s part of your onward commitment,” he said.
“So that’s why we work very hard to get the summers covered and the mid-semester breaks, and Golden Week, and times when people will travel. We still will make sure that we feed our family.”