MIAMI — Many Americans were shocked last month when the U.S. Census Bureau announced that poverty was at a 15-year high in this country, with 44 million people lacking income to sufficiently secure basic resources. Some would probably be even more surprised to learn that Japan, with its image of equality and social order, is experiencing similar trends. While Japan does not publish official data on poverty, the take-up rate for Seikatsu Hogo, the country’s main welfare program for the poor, is often used as a poverty indicator. Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare recently announced that this figure reached a historical high in June of 2010.

But the bad news on both sides of the globe has been tempered with a remarkable positive development. Amid increases in poverty and unemployment, both countries have seen continuing decreases in street homelessness. The most recent Homeless Assessment Report to the U.S. Congress states that the chronically homeless, or those who have been on the streets or in shelters long-term and have disabilities, decreased nationally by 10 percent from 2008 to 2009, with 53 percent of communities covered by the report seeing a decrease. At the same time, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare has reported a national decrease of street homelessness of 16 percent between 2009 and 2010, with 80 percent of communities reporting a decrease.

These statistics may be somewhat misleading. In the United States, even though chronic homelessness is declining, there have been substantial increases in familial homelessness. And, in Japan, there may be a growing “hidden homeless” population missed by street counts.

Still, the consistent decline of street homelessness in both countries amid a major global recession is an optimistic sign that governments are finally learning how to approach this tough, intractable problem.

It starts with a government commitment. The decrease in chronic homelessness in the U.S. has been pushed by both the Bush and Obama administrations, which funded an ambitious program that, by 2009, provided almost 220,000 units in subsidized housing for the formerly homeless. In Japan, the decrease in street homelessness was generally attributed to a national order in 2008 to widen access to welfare benefits and housing allowances for the hardcore unemployed.

While the provision of subsidized housing is crucial to get people off the streets, a lesser-known component in both nations has been the flexible, holistic and trust-building work of frontline staff people at organizations linking people to and keeping them in housing. In my research in Miami, Tokyo and other cities in the U.S. and Japan, I have met many people on the streets unable to find programs meeting their needs, and electing to fend for themselves rather than be treated like criminals or children in highly regulated programs. Those who were able to get out of their predicament established social ties developed with staff in programs that they had come to trust. The key to escaping the disconnection of life on the streets is trust, not just person-to-person trust, but a hard earned faith in social service agencies.

In Tokyo, I observed the interactions between a Mr. Matsumoto, a 39-year-old developmentally disabled man who ended up on the streets after fleeing a facility in Fukuoka, and a Mr. Hirano, a case worker at Sanyuukai, a free nonprofit medical clinic. Hirano worked skillfully to build up a trusting relationship with his client by quickly linking him with housing, food and clothing, and developing a plan to traverse the complex bureaucracy and secure short-term unemployment benefits, disability funds, and assistance in finding employment once he stabilizes.

In Miami, I rode along with Federico, a nurse for the nonprofit organization Camillus House, on a home visit with Juan, a 50-year-old who had spent years on the streets suffering from severe depression and alcoholism. Juan moved from the streets into a one-bedroom apartment; was linked with disability benefits and wrap-around-services that include regular visits from a psychiatrist, periodic check-ins by Federico and other staff, and social activities with other clients; and appears to have successfully put his days on the street behind him.

Frontline staff, sometimes graduates of homelessness themselves, often have to overcome their clients’ disappointment with leaner and more disciplinary programs. The remedy has been in implementing flexible approaches to address the myriad needs of their clients, fostering the trust of people who have experienced the trauma of the streets. Nonprofit service providers like Sanyuukai in Tokyo and Camillus House in Miami need continued support in carrying out their altruistic life-transforming task. Further progress will require the support of national and local funders as well as private donations. The remarkable success of flexible and holistic approaches to street homelessness may also encourage greater support for other programs that help the poor and vulnerable to persevere amid continuing turbulent times.

Matthew D. Marr, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies and the Asian Studies Program at Florida International University. All personal names in this report are pseudonyms.

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