National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Public divided over treatment of the homeless during Typhoon Hagibis

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

When Typhoon Hagibis struck Tokyo on Oct. 12, news emerged that three homeless people had been turned away from an emergency evacuation facility in Taito Ward. As the story spread, it varied in tone and content on social media. Some thought the persons refused entry were not actually homeless, while others thought that even if they were the officials at the facility were right to reject them because they weren’t registered at addresses in the ward.

Mainstream media later checked and found the story to be true. Apparently, the staff at the facility, an elementary school, didn’t know what to do and called their supervisor, who said not to admit them if they couldn’t prove residency. A member of an organization supporting the homeless asked if there was another facility these people could go and staff replied that there wasn’t, though there was a place where foreign tourists could go and, presumably, it would accept the homeless as well.

Taito’s mayor later apologized at an assembly meeting and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said during a Diet session that the matter required attention. Officially, it was deemed inappropriate to turn anyone away from safety during a disaster, and there is no evidence that other Tokyo facilities refused homeless people. At least 90 people died as a result of the typhoon, and so far that number seems to include one homeless individual. In any case, those with no access to shelter are obviously at greater risk when the elements turn rough.

In a Nov. 4 article, Tokyo Shimbun reported on a local homeless aid organization, Sanya Rodosha Fukushi Hall, which looked into the matter. The group surveyed individuals who receive free food at the hall about their experiences during the storm, and also went into the streets of Taito, Sumida and Koto wards to talk to other homeless people, collecting comments from around 100 individuals.

They asked where people were during the typhoon and whether they knew about evacuation facilities in their areas. To the second question, 29 replied they knew about facilities, while the rest said they didn’t. Regardless of awareness, 23 said they wouldn’t go to a facility anyway, while only 15 said they would have wanted to enter one.

As to where people sought shelter, some said shopping arcades and “under eaves of buildings,” including one person who stood outside an evacuation facility peering in the window. Only four respondents actually entered evacuation facilities.

One of the interviewers told Tokyo Shimbun that many homeless didn’t want to enter facilities even though they were aware of them, since they don’t expect to be treated like human beings. Another member of the group commented that homeless people are in a constant state of being rejected. Usually when someone sleeps in a shopping arcade that is closed for the day, the police come and kick them out, regardless of the weather. So why should they expect an evacuation center to let them in?

Honorary professor Michio Goto of Tsuru University told the newspaper that Taito Ward’s response represents a “mid-19th-century attitude” that divides society into citizens who pay taxes and those who don’t. Human decency demands you do what you can for people in need if they are right in front of you, but that may not be a widely held belief. He cited a 2017 case where welfare officials in the city of Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, had jackets made with an odd English sentence that called welfare recipients “dregs,” reflecting these officials’ view that the poor were inherently dishonest.

Yoshinori Ogawa, a social welfare and mental health expert, examined the matter more closely in an article for Gendai Business. Ogawa said that when he heard about the Taito Ward incident he was initially “surprised and angered,” but later realized it was business as usual. He often accompanies homeless people to local government offices in order to help them apply for welfare, and these offices have a system that effectively makes it difficult for homeless people to get help on their own. There is always a receptionist who invariably replies to queries about welfare with the question, “What is your address?” Although it sounds innocent enough, to the average homeless person the question is loaded. Usually, they answer with their last address and, if it isn’t in the local government’s jurisdiction, the person will be pointed to a different government office. In most cases, the person will give up.

Three people were turned away from the Taito Ward elementary school because they didn’t provide a proper address but, according to the law, if a person has no abode they can receive assistance from the government body “where they exist” at the moment. So the Taito Ward response was not only inappropriate, but arguably illegal.

The law is no match for human nature. Many of the comments Ogawa read online said that allowing the homeless into the evacuation center bothers others because the homeless smell bad, and to those who vilified the Taito Ward officials these same people say: If you feel so sorry for the homeless, why don’t you invite them into your own homes?

This seems to be a common sentiment. Ogawa works with homeless people and the vast majority do not smell once they have secured accommodation. And if they do smell it’s because they don’t have access to functions the rest of us have access to by dint of the fact that we have places to live, so the obvious solution is to provide housing for these people. But the authorities and society as a whole make that difficult because they believe the homeless deserve their situation. They think it should be a chore to lift yourself out of misfortune. Making it easier to do so is what is commonly referred to as a moral hazard.

The Tokyo Shimbun and Gendai Business articles show the divide between public pronouncement and private feeling. By Ogawa’s estimation, comments saying Taito Ward did nothing wrong represented the majority opinion on social media. Those in charge may make cosmetic improvements, but no real change will happen without a change in public perception of the poor. It’s also worth remembering that the homeless can’t vote.