National / Social Issues

Japan’s homeless at risk from coronavirus pandemic

by Andrew McKirdy

STAFF WRITER

Takayuki Koda is 67 years old and homeless.

He is also completely unconcerned about the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Coronavirus is an illness for pampered people,” Koda said, as he waited in the rain for volunteers to hand out food in a small park near Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo on Wednesday night.

“No homeless people have died of coronavirus,” he said. “I’m fine. I’m resistant. I’m not worried about it at all.”

Koda is one of 4,555 homeless people currently living in Japan, according to the latest figures published by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in April last year. Of those, 1,126 live in Tokyo, the epicenter of Japan’s COVID-19 outbreak.

Despite what Koda may think, Japan’s homeless population is very much at risk from the pandemic sweeping the globe.

A September 2017 survey by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare revealed that 42.8 percent of Japan’s homeless population was over 65 years old, the first time the figure topped 40 percent. The average age — 61.5 – was over 60 for the first time.

Many of Tokyo’s homeless also have underlying health problems like diabetes and heart disease, making them particularly vulnerable as cases of COVID-19 continue to climb in the capital.

“Each person looks at it differently,” said Kenji Seino, director of nonprofit organization Tenohasi, which provides food, clothing, advice and medical checks for homeless people in Ikebukuro. “It depends on the person. They don’t go to the hospital when they get influenza, and some of them think the coronavirus is just like that. And then some are very scared and don’t want to go anywhere.”

Homeless people in Japan do not have health insurance but can access health care if they apply to go on welfare. Given the powerful social stigma that surrounds homelessness in a country that traditionally places great importance on self-reliance, however, many choose not to take that step.

Welfare is only granted if a person cannot be supported by their family and has no other means of support. Many homeless people feel too ashamed to allow their family to be contacted and asked.

Tsuyoshi Inaba, co-founder of nonprofit organization Moyai and a longtime campaigner for homeless people’s rights, says welfare officials at ward offices often adopt a confrontational attitude that also discourages homeless people from applying.

“I don’t know if any homeless people have been infected with coronavirus or not,” Inaba said. “But if it does happen, I think a lot of them won’t seek medical treatment straight away. If they go and ask for it, they will be able to get it. But there is a chance that a lot of them will just try to put up with it, and then the virus will spread.”

Inaba says many homeless people in Tokyo had not even heard of COVID-19 until the beginning of March, but information is now beginning to get through. Support groups around the capital have been handing out leaflets drawn up by Medecins du Monde during their regular food handouts and patrols, and Tenohasi has also been distributing packs containing face masks, tissues, hand sanitizer and pocket warmers since March 14.

Inside Ikebukuro Station on Wednesday night, one 70-year-old homeless man, who declined to give his name, seemed to be very well informed about the virus.

“Nature is a strange thing,” he said. “SARS started from a civet cat. I’m worried. Most viruses can mutate, so if it suddenly becomes much more infectious, everyone might die from it. Right now, it’s older people and people with underlying illnesses dying. Young people seem to be fine.”

Some homeless people are more concerned about losing their lifeline to society than contracting the virus. Already, Big Issue vendors’ income has been affected by company employees in Japan working from home or adjusting their work patterns, while 67-year-old Koda complains that he has nowhere to shelter now that his local library is temporarily closed.

If the government decides to declare a national emergency and asks businesses to suspend operations, however, the situation is likely to become much more serious for Tokyo’s homeless.

A January 2018 survey by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government found that as many as 4,000 homeless people in the capital seek refuge in internet and manga cafes on any given weekday. Should these establishments close, those people would have nowhere to go.

On Friday morning, an association of Tokyo homeless support groups presented a request to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, asking the authority to provide a hotel or apartment buildings to temporarily house homeless people in the event of a national emergency. Similar temporary shelters have been set up in other countries during the COVID-19 crisis.

Seino argues that current homeless shelters in Japan are not fit to be used during a viral outbreak. When homeless people are granted welfare, they are first moved into shelter facilities that typically feature shared dormitory rooms, some of which sleep up to 20 people.

“If one person was to become infected in a place like that, the virus would become rampant throughout the whole facility,” Seino said. “The people who stay there get their meals three times a day in a shared cafeteria. They also share toilets and baths.

“There are a lot of older people and people with health problems in places like that. Of course, there are younger people staying there too, but among those younger people there are people with mental and physical problems. If an infection breaks out in a place like that, it would be a serious problem.”

Japan’s homeless numbers have been falling steadily since the early 1990s, when the collapse of the economic bubble cast thousands out onto the street and “tent cities” sprung up around major urban areas.

The economic impact of this year’s COVID-19 crisis is yet to be counted, but Inaba worries that the coming years could see homelessness on the rise in Japan once more.

“The economy will get worse and people will lose their jobs,” he said. “People who are freelance or self-employed won’t have any work. Day laborers won’t have work. People won’t have enough money to pay their rent.

“We put out an emergency appeal for landlords not to evict tenants who can’t pay their rent. If they throw them out, they’ll become homeless. I’m worried that the number of people on the streets is going to increase.”

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