National / Social Issues

Japan tries to tackle health problems of aging homeless

Jiji

Public and private efforts are gathering pace to address the increase in the number of elderly homeless Japanese.

A nationwide survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry found 5,534 people living on the streets or riverbanks as of January 2017, with many of them in urban areas such as central Tokyo’s 23 wards and the city of Osaka.

Their average age was 61.5 as of October 2016, a rise of around two years from five years earlier, the ministry said.

Some homeless people secure places to live and apply for social welfare benefits thanks to support from local government employees, but many live hand to mouth by collecting and selling empty cans.

The advancing age of homeless people has made health problems among them more noticeable.

Staff members of Tokyo Orange, a nonprofit organization, and other concerns visit homeless people in Shibuya Ward to check their health, but “homeless people don’t volunteer information” about their condition, said Akio Ikegame, head of Tokyo Orange.

The group therefore has included nurses in its regular visits to assess homeless people, monitoring their eating habits as well as any arm or leg swelling and other symptoms. Data collected during the visits are shared by staff members of the group.

Working together, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the 23 ward offices have sent doctors and public health nurses on a trial basis to examine homeless people’s health conditions.

In a nationwide survey, 27 percent of homeless people complained of health problems, including dental and back pains, with 61 percent of them receiving no medical treatment. Prompt treatment is imperative as the aggravation of diseases will boost medical bills and may eat into their social welfare benefits.

The number of homeless elderly people is increasing due to the difficulty of leaving life on the street. As of October 2016, 35 percent had been homeless for 10 years or more.

Although local governments offer temporary shelters, many leave because they cannot tolerate sharing rooms or toilets, according to personnel involved in aid for the homeless.

The Shibuya Ward office launched a shelter program in fiscal 2016 to provide a private room with attached bathroom for each homeless person. The program provides homeless people with opportunities to prepare for future life in an apartment, said Ikegame of Tokyo Orange, which manages the shelter on behalf of the ward office.

The shelter consists of eight rooms, which are almost always occupied, Ikegame said. Most residents move to apartments within six months of moving into the shelter.

The central government is also upgrading its support for homeless people. For example, the welfare ministry plans to start a subsidy program in fiscal 2018 for local governments that send health care workers to check homeless people’s health conditions.

Last October, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism started to release information on housing units that accept elderly or low-income residents.

But the central government’s support programs for the homeless are carried out by local governments and NPOs. Amid manpower and budgetary shortages, one of the biggest tasks is building up related know-how and nurturing workers by sharing information among NPOs.

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