National

Homeless shelters’ presence, profits irk neighbors

by Hiroshi Matsubara

After learning that about 20 homeless people had moved into a dormlike shelter in their neighborhood, a large group of residents in the Higashi-Nippori district of Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward demanded that the local assembly close the facility and relocate its occupants.

The residents acknowledge that Tokyo, whose homeless population exceeds 6,000, is desperately in need of such facilities but argue they should not be built in a quiet, safe neighborhood like theirs.

They also do not like how the privately run Tatsumi-ryo requires its occupants to apply for allowances from local welfare offices and pockets two-thirds of the money they get for housing, food and utilities.

“The dormitory apparently aims to profit from public money, taking advantage of the homeless people’s plight,” said Kiyoshi Saito, head of a neighborhood group.

Late last month, the group handed a petition to the Arakawa Ward Assembly, demanding that it strictly regulate the construction of similar facilities. In response, the assembly presented an opinion paper containing a similar message to the national and Tokyo Metropolitan governments last week.

Amid the protracted economic slump, the central and local governments have failed to come up with measures to help people off the streets by expanding job opportunities.

Instead, amid a dearth of other options, more local governments have been granting monthly welfare allowances to homeless people, especially elderly ones or those suffering from a disease.

The latest Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey, carried out earlier this year, put the nation’s homeless population at 25,296, up 1,206 from the total counted by separate municipalities two years ago.

Because homeless people are required to provide an address when applying for welfare assistance, which amounts to 140,000 yen a month, some parties, including businesses, are apparently trying to profit from the situation.

An increasing number of privately operated accommodations are offering beds and food to homeless people and pocketing a large portion of their welfare allowances in return.

Many such shelters reach out only to healthy homeless people, who do not need nursing care and can keep house on their own, initially offering them free food.

By providing each occupant with a fixed address, the shelters’ operators usually collect around 100,000 yen for all services.

According to the public assistance section of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s Social Welfare Bureau, such facilities are registered under the Social Welfare Law as “free or inexpensive housing for people with poverty problems.”

Such privately run facilities have dramatically increased. There are now 145 in Tokyo that together can accommodate roughly 5,000 people.

Jiro Watanabe, president of the nonprofit organization Friendy, whose affiliated firm runs Tatsumi-ryo, admitted that operating the dormitory is “partly” for the sake of profits. But he also stressed it serves the public good.

“Given the severity of the country’s homeless problem, volunteerism does not suffice to solve it. Offering profits is a way to encourage the private sector to expand sustainable assistance to the homeless population,” said Watanabe, a former real estate executive who also runs a similar shelter in Kawasaki.

“We offer more than we take. Homeless people are given much-needed warm beds and meals, a homey atmosphere and a chance to learn discipline and self-esteem,” he said.

At Tatsumi-ryo, a new structure that Watanabe spent 30 million yen to furnish, dwellers are provided beds and three meals.

They live under strict rules, including no drinking inside, no dirty or sloppy attire and no quarreling with others. They must participate in early morning neighborhood cleanup details and do all the housekeeping in rotation.

They are strongly encouraged to find jobs inside or outside the facility for financial independence. For housing and all the other services, the facility takes 97,000 yen out of the roughly 135,000 yen welfare allowance each occupant receives a month and 87,000 yen from those who have jobs.

Many of Tatsumi-ryo’s 23 tenants have expressed gratitude for their new home, saying it beats life on the street or at other public and private accommodations.

A 59-year-old resident who lived on the street more than a year and now receives public assistance said Tatsumi-ryo is like his first home. He said he feels close to his roommates and “protected” from the harsh reality of the world.

“I will probably stay at this place, even though I now have a job,” said the man, who recently started working as a garbage collector.

Watanabe said he believes the neighborhood protest reflects a double prejudice widely held by the Japanese public — one against homeless people and the other against welfare recipients.

He acknowledged that some facilities only aim for profits and don’t offer a better life for homeless people, and many of the occupants of his dormitories felt compelled to move out of other private shelters.

A senior welfare official of one of Tokyo’s 23 wards said on condition of anonymity that anyone can legally open such facilities without having to face a background check or scrutiny over what it does with the money collected.

Many shelters are run by parties with a long history of aiding the homeless on humanitarian or religious grounds, but there are also operators with no record of engaging in welfare services, the official said.

One of the largest entities running shelters — some 80 facilities mainly in Tokyo — initially claimed to be a rightist political organization, he said.

“If the welfare money goes, for instance, to the underworld, it constitutes a huge moral problem,” the official confided.

He placed the blame for such dubious — but prospering — shelters on the public sector’s failure to properly address the homeless problem.

But what about the fate of Tatsumi-ryo?

In April, the Tokyo Metropolitan and Kawasaki Municipal governments issued directives on the establishment and operation of such shelters.

The directives stipulate the minimum living conditions for dwellers and oblige operators to consult with authorities and to obtain prior approval from neighbors before opening shelters.

Based on the directives, the metropolitan government has refused to accept Tatsumi-ryo’s application for designation as a welfare facility.

In an effort to close the dormitory down, the Arakawa Ward Assembly put into effect an ordinance Tuesday to regulate the opening of such facilities. One assembly member said he believes other municipalities will follow the ward’s move.

But nobody knows where the occupants of these facilities go if they were evicted from their newly found homes.