Tokyo’s efforts to lift people out of homelessness have borne fruit, according to the government, as a survey showed their numbers hit a record low this past winter. But critics question the methods used and argue such people are only becoming increasingly less visible.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government said Monday that the number of homeless people in parks, on roadsides and around train stations in the capital’s 23 wards as of January fell to a record low of 744 during this past winter season. This was 34 fewer than the previous winter.

The metropolitan government has collected statistics in summer and winter each year since 1995.

“We believe that the (Tokyo government’s) assistance has contributed to the drop in their numbers,” an official in the metropolitan government’s social welfare and public health bureau told The Japan Times.

The official said the policy of helping homeless people live independently has led to many of them finding work as cleaners and security guards, among other occupations.

The number of homeless people fell in 13 of the 23 wards, with Taito Ward witnessing the sharpest drop from 128 to 88.

But in some areas the number rose from the previous year. Shibuya Ward had the most homeless people — 107, up 18 from the year before — followed by Shinjuku Ward, which had 97 homeless people, up by 27.

The official said many homeless people refuse to accept public support. Sometimes this is out of concern that their families will find out about their situation, or because they simply wish to exist without the support of government agencies.

“Such people, and those with mental health issues, are hard to reach; they don’t even want to talk to officers who offer them support,” he said.

The findings also showed the number of homeless people in greater Tokyo, not just the 23 wards, totaled 1,473.

Takuya Kitabatake, head of Tokyo-based Advocacy and Research Center for Homelessness (ARCH) called the fact that nearly 1,500 people have been reported as homeless alarming, and pointed out that the government survey was conducted only during daylight hours.

“It is a sign we should take the issue more seriously,” said Kitabatake, a Ph.D. student in the Tokyo Institute of Technology’s School of Environment and Society.

Around the same time the survey was conducted, in mid-January, ARCH conducted its own homeless count in Shibuya, Shinjuku and Toshima wards.

The results put the total number of homeless people in the three wards at 671, nearly three times higher than that reported by city officials.

“At terminal stations where we did the street count, the difference in numbers during the daytime and at night was significant, so we can assume the real numbers are much higher,” ARCH’s Kitabatake said.

Metropolitan officials said they are aware that the number of homeless people who are hidden from sight during the day may be higher than is shown in the city’s study.

Kitabatake pointed out that many homeless people may choose to stay in areas that are out of the public eye, with 701 of Tokyo’s homeless living on riverbanks.

ARCH, which comprises researchers and experienced social workers who for years have studied the problem of homelessness in Japan, was officially launched last year. It is advocating an increase in support for the homeless in and around Tokyo by 2020.

The group fears that large-scale urban development for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics may force such at-risk people even further into the margins.

“With numerous urban development projects like those related to the Tokyo Olympics, we might see fewer people living on the streets, but they might move to places where they are less visible,” Kitabatake said, adding that he fears the issue of homelessness may go increasingly unnoticed.

He said many people who volunteered for the project admitted they had not been aware so many homeless people turn up at night in areas they often pass by.

“I believe a better public support system is needed, but I also wish citizens would pay more attention to (homeless people) in areas where they live,” he said. “There are many people staying at Internet cafes, people who, though their financial situation is unstable, are not classified as homeless in these surveys.”

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