Japan to boost safety at shelters for the needy in wake of deadly Sapporo fire

Kyodo

The central government on Friday approved a bill to boost the safety of shelters for the needy following a slew of deadly fires at such facilities across the country.

The government aims to have the bill enacted in the current Diet session and bolster fire protection measures at the shelters, such as the securing of evacuation routes, from fiscal 2020.

The move comes just over a week after a fire killed 11 at a Sapporo facility that housed low income elderly and disabled people.

Similar incidents occurred at an apartment accommodating low income and mentally disabled people in Akita Prefecture in August, where five were killed, and at a lodging facility housing elderly welfare recipients in Kawasaki in May 2015, resulting in 11 deaths.

Free or low-cost accommodations run by nonprofit organizations offer services for many elderly or sick welfare recipients who are often denied rooms operated by private companies due to fears they won’t pay rent.

But critics have pointed to poor safety conditions at such facilities, which are often made up of a cluster of small rooms. Operators are reluctant to spend too much money on equipment because that may force them to increase rent.

Some facilities have effectively become businesses exploiting impoverished residents for the welfare payments they receive.

As of June 2015, some 15,000 people lived in around 530 free or low-cost lodging facilities registered with local governments.

Operators of such facilities have been recommended to set up evacuation exits, install fire extinguishers and make sure each individual room is at least 7.43 square meters, but the guidelines are not enforceable.

The envisioned revision of the law on social welfare will set minimum standards for fire protection measures and allow municipal governments to issue orders for facilities that don’t meet regulations.

Meanwhile, the central government has also approved a separate bill to prevent the isolation of shelter residents through newly established programs to send staff from nonprofit organizations to offer them consultations, check on their hospital visit records and help them with medication.

Additionally, the government is eyeing expanded measures to fight child poverty by offering one-off payments when children in welfare households enter university.

Public study support programs currently targeting elementary and junior high school students in financially struggling households will be offered to a wider range of children, including those who dropped out of high school or did not attend school after graduating from junior high school.

The national child poverty rate stood at 13.9 percent in 2015, higher than the average among industrialized countries. The poverty rate among single-parent households was as high as 50.8 percent.