CIVICUS speaks to Tsubasa Yuki of Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living about the situation of homeless people amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan. Founded in 2001, the Moyai Support Centre supports homeless people by creating a community space and providing advice and rent guarantees for those seeking housing.
In Japan it is illegal to beg on the streets and there is little sympathy for homeless people, who are commonly stereotyped as running away from gambling debts. Tokyo’s preparations for the Olympic Games, originally planned for 2020 and now postponed to 2021, prompted the removal of homeless tents around railway stations and parks. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Moyai Support Centre started an online petition to request permission from the Tokyo Olympic organisers and the city government to use the Olympic Village as a homeless shelter.
Can you tell us about the work of the Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living?
Our programmes for supporting homeless people are threefold, and most of them are not exclusive for people in homelessness. Firstly, we have a consultation service, Seikatsu-Soudan. Every Tuesday, around 20 people visit our office asking for immediate help. In most cases, they are seriously impoverished and need public assistance. In those cases, we provide them with accurate information about social welfare services and support their application processes.
Secondly, we provide rent guarantees for homeless people seeking secure housing. After applying for public assistance, people are usually allocated to shelters and then start searching for apartments, and this is where we come in. We have provided rent guarantees for more than 2,000 people in total. However, insurance issued by private companies has recently become more common. So we advise our visitors to use those private companies if they can, and often our representative provides his phone number as an emergency contact when they apply for private insurance.
Thirdly, we have a community space. It is often the case that even after getting secure housing, formerly homeless people do not have any place to be when they go out. So we have a café, Salon de Café Komorebi, which opens every Saturday. This café is managed by our staff alongside many volunteers, including formerly homeless people. Unfortunately, the café is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What was the situation of homeless people in Japan before the pandemic?
Some general trends can be identified. In Tokyo, and probably in other Japanese cities, there are at least 1,000 rough sleepers, most of whom are male and relatively old, with an average age around the mid-50s. They usually combine multiple strategies for survival: they are day labourers, seek other informal jobs, scavenge and eat at soup kitchens. In the case of Tokyo, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) has a public employment programme through which rough sleepers can gain a monthly cash income of around 20,000 yen (approx. US$190). Rough sleepers are mostly single males, but many of them form some kind of community in which they share useful information and, less frequently, jobs.
In addition to rough sleepers, at least 4,000 people use cyber cafés and other facilities to spend the night in. Most of them are employed in the most insecure part of the labour market – they are cleaning staff, security officers, construction workers, or have transportation jobs. While they may seem to have relatively more secure housing than rough sleepers, the truth is that cyber cafés are segregated into compartments and as a result, these people usually don’t have any communities they belong to.
What specific challenges have homeless people faced during the pandemic?
The most striking point is that many community-based and faith-based organisations and other groups suspended soup kitchens due to fear of spreading the virus. This has made it really hard for rough sleepers to get enough food and vital information about the virus and the public services available to them.
In addition, public employment services stopped in April 2020 and as a result, rough sleepers have lost their major source of cash income. Cash incomes from the informal economy, including scavenging, also declined because of the lockdown and stay-at-home policies.
In April, the TMG requested that many enterprises in the service economy suspend their business. Cyber cafés and similar facilities were also requested to stop operating. Although this was not mandated by law, many enterprises followed the policy. As a result, people living in cyber cafés lost their places to sleep. Many of them also lost their jobs and incomes due to economic decline prompted by the lockdown policy.
How have the Moyai Support Centre and other civil society organisations (CSOs) responded to the situation?
Many CSOs have had to stop their activities as well. We closed our café in April 2020. But at the same time, we extended our consultation services. Currently, in addition to the Tuesday consultation service, we have set up a soup kitchen and provide consultation services in front of the TMG office, together with another civil society group, Shinjuku Gohan Plus. In April alone, we distributed more than 600 packages of food and provided consultation services to more than 150 people.
As well as providing direct services to people in need, we have started a petition so we can use the Olympic Village set up for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics as a shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, the petition has collected more than 50,000 signatures.
Under the pandemic, the TMG made 2,000 hotel rooms available as shelter for those expelled from cyber cafés, and more than 800 people have been using them. But it is not clear whether this policy will be extended after the state of emergency ends. The Olympic Village can be the next place to accommodate them.
In July and August 2020, we will have elections for the TMG. We are trying to tackle the shortage of decent shelters for people facing homelessness by making the issue one of the major topics in the coming election for Tokyo’s governor. As it is connected both to issues of the Olympics and COVID-19, it is now attracting a great deal of attention from people inside and outside Tokyo. So we are now planning to submit a petition and deliver an open questionnaire letter to candidates in the election. They will be obliged to express their stance and opinions on the issue of homelessness in Tokyo.
But we understand these are only temporary solutions. Be it at hotels or the Olympic Village, these are only temporary shelters at best. The next step for us is to support homeless people to find secure housing, that is, get their own apartment. This is challenging even for people who have successfully applied for and received public assistance. We are trying to reach them in shelters and support them in finding apartments.
But this cannot be done solely by CSOs like us. This mass transition from shelters to apartments can only be successfully accomplished with the help of willing and conscientious owners and landlords. The next goal for both CSOs and public entities should be to gain their support.
What lessons have you learned so far around the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on homeless people?
The current situation reveals that soup kitchens and other voluntary activities played a vital role as an information centre for homeless people, and especially for rough sleepers. People in that situation have scarce access to important information about COVID-19 and related policies and services. Some of them gain information from radio and newspapers but these media are not available to all rough sleepers. Thus, for many of them, voluntary activities are almost the only source of accurate information.
Further, while it might be common knowledge that homeless people are particularly vulnerable to disasters, it is worth noting that homeless people and those working in insecure jobs have been the first to be affected by the pandemic, and the hardest hit. Stay-at-home policies might be one of the most effective strategies against the pandemic, but they presuppose that people have secure housing and a certain amount of savings. For those people with no secure housing, employment status and savings, it is almost impossible to follow the policy. In addition, homeless people are not eligible for any of the compensation or temporary income support that is available to other people. The vulnerability of the homeless is the result of contemporary Japanese society’s built-in social exclusion.