YOKOHAMA — Every morning at JR Yokohama Station, people show up armed with brooms and dustpans to clean up litter on nearby streets left by the previous night’s carousing throngs.
Until recently, these volunteers lived in a 30-meter section of a closed underground pedestrian passage that used to connect the two sides of the station.
When they arrive at their former “home,” they wake up those still sleeping in the tunnel, help them pack their belongings and clean up the walkway.
“Although homeless people are often viewed as no more than trash, we want to prove through our voluntary efforts that we can do good things — things other people are not willing to do,” said Masaru Noguchi, 59, who heads the cleanup detail, which calls itself “Phoenix Crew.”
The members lead a unique communal life in a rented apartment in Yokohama’s Nishi Ward in their effort to return to society.
The group has been around in one form or another since early last year.
For financial support, members have engaged in such work as collecting discarded aluminum cans from garbage dumps or the street for recycling.
Noguchi said the group started cleaning up around the station to win public sympathy for homeless people and to instill in its members a sense of discipline and self-respect.
Noguchi, who ran an electric appliance wholesale company with nearly 40 workers in the 1990s before it failed, took a homeless man home in November 2001 after seeing him squatting in the same position for more than a week. This inspired him to form the group.
Although he has never lived on the streets, Noguchi said he feels a natural sympathy for the homeless because he too is a “loser.” His family deserted him after his company went bankrupt in the late 1990s and he was left with 400 million yen in debts.
Since then, about 200 people, ranging in age from their teens to their 70s, have participated in the group — some at Noguchi’s urging and others knocking on the door of his former office-cum-home looking for free meals.
Some stayed just a couple of days, others more than a year. Some found jobs and their own place to live, after regaining their footing in life through their stint with the group. Others returned to life on the streets.
“This is a temporary stop where one can learn the things necessary to resume an independent life,” he said. “It is an experiment to prove that homeless people can do things for themselves without assistance from the government or volunteer groups.”
The group has few rules. Members must lend a helping hand to others when possible, and not drink too much.
A 50-year-old member said he has come to feel affection and respect from other people because of his time in the group — notions essential for overcoming the low self-esteem and self-pity that helped drive him into homeless life.
“I had been longing for this type of home. It’s warm and strict at the same time, but if I go away for a while, I began to feel homesick for the place,” the man said, suggesting it was ironic to have such feelings.
While Noguchi tends to play the role of a strict father, Kazumi Yamauchi, 58, plays a maternal role in an effort to keep the members from returning to the streets.
Called “mama” by young members and “sis” by older people, Yamauchi, who formerly served as a director at a food catering company, cooks all the meals on a voluntary basis and manages the group’s operations on a limited income.
“Everybody’s desperate for motherly affection,” she said.
The group’s operations have changed over time. At the end of May, it was forced to leave Noguchi’s former office, which he had to give up as collateral for his debts.
The members then lived on the street for two days before moving into a single-room apartment in the same neighborhood.
Noguchi’s previous home could accommodate nearly 30 people. The members didn’t have to pay rent and managed to live on the meager income they earned by collecting aluminum cans on the streets or garage sites for recycling.
The group has only seven members at present due to the tight confines of the 65 yen,000-a-month apartment. It encourages every member to seek out any kind of job available.
Despite the shrinking demand for manual labor, all of the members, including a 71-year-old man, have managed to find work, mainly cleaning up streets and public parks.
This may be because they told job interviewers they voluntarily clean up around Yokohama Station every day, one member said.
A hotel owner in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, impressed by the group’s activities, has provided them with a large farm plot for free. Members have been raising hens and growing vegetables since April.
The first crop is expected to fill their plates this week.
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