Imagining Life on the Streets Today and Support in the Future: Field Report on Volunteer Experience NewsInsightsEssays: Civil Society in JapanVoices from JNPOCOther Topics


Posted on February 05, 2021


In 2018, Japan NPO Center (JNPOC) started an opinion site called NPO CROSS to discuss the role of NPOs/NGOs and civil society as well as social issues in Japan and abroad. We post articles contributed by various stakeholders, including NPOs, foundations, corporations, and volunteer writers.
For this JNPOC’s English site, we select some translated articles from NPO CROSS to introduce to our English-speaking readers.

Imagining Life on the Streets Today and Support in the Future:
Field Report on Volunteer Experience

 

On November 16th 2020, a woman aged 64 who was living on the streets in Shibuya, Tokyo, was beaten to death by a man. According to the news, this woman had been living on the streets since spring.

3,992. This is the official number of people living on the streets in Japan as of January 2020*. Although the number is on the decline, let us imagine that 3,992 is not just a number but the sum of individuals each with different lives and circumstances. And there are people who continue to support the homeless people. I participated in a volunteer program to support people living on the streets; I observed the reality of life on the streets and the field of support both of which cannot be seen from mere numbers.

*”Results of a Nationwide Research on the Status of the Homelessness” (2020), Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare

 

People gathering for clothing

At 4:20 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon in November, a car stopped near Building #2 of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. As if it is a cue, people gathered from nowhere. They wore knit caps and thick sweatshirts or jackets. As I looked around, I saw a lot of clothes, towels, razors, toothbrushes and other daily necessities in cardboard boxes being taken out of the car.

A clothing drive is held every Sunday evening. The drive is organized by Shinjuku Nojuku Rodo-sha no Seikatsu-Shurohosho wo Motomeru Renrakukai, or Shinjuku Renraku-kai for short (and, in English, Shinjuku Liaison Association), which has been supporting homeless people for many years. In winter, more than 30 boxes of donated clothes are sent every week from all over Japan. When the clothes were spread out on plastic tarps, homeless people rushed to find the clothes they needed. There were roughly 70 of them in their 40s to 70s, mostly men but a few women as well, and many of them gather here every week.

 

No work, no money, no soup kitchens

“I’m always at the Shinjuku Station’s west exit,” said the man I talked to, who is 72 and has been living on the streets for about 10 years. He couldn’t find a job as he got older, so he started collecting cardboard boxes once a week to earn 7 to 8 thousand yen for his meals. He sleeps around the station from around 10 pm until early morning, kills time at the library during the day, and walks to the soup kitchen every day. This is his routine life.

However, COVID made his life more difficult. He let on his true feelings. “From April to June, I had no work at all and no money. But the Tokyo Metropolitan Government didn’t give us any support. In fact, they reduced the number of soup kitchens because of COVID. We couldn’t even get the special cash payments (for COVID-19). They treat us as if we weren’t human beings because we don’t have an address registered.”

Though I was not sure how to react to his words and could not say anything, the man continued to talk while sometimes laughing. I thought he was a cheerful person, but for sure he must be having a hard time. In order to live, he continues to go to the limited number of soup kitchens however far they are. He walked off the place, saying “There’s a soup kitchen held in Shibuya.”

 

250 rice balls

Rice ball distribution comes after the clothes. Led by Koji Noguchi, aged 74, who is a volunteer with the Shinjuku Liaison Association, a group of seven people started handing rice balls. Among the group were three men and women who live on the streets, participating in this activity every week.

This activity started in 2014. The staff prepare about 250 rice balls in advance. The rice balls are more than five centimeters in diameter and come in a variety of flavors, such as seasoned rice style and those covered with kombu or pickled mustard greens. On this day, we split into two parties, and with a bag of rice balls on my shoulder, our party of four including Mr. Noguchi started walking from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office. We walked to the south exit of Shinjuku Station, then to the area around Shinjuku Takashimaya department store, and to Shinjuku Sanchome Station, and finally to the underground passage at the west exit of Shinjuku Station.

 

Meeting “friends”

Homeless people sleep in a variety of places. Some lay out cardboard boxes on the street, while others make roofs with umbrellas, cardboard, or blankets. While several people stay together, I saw some living alone in some cases. In the Shinjuku area alone, there are different types of homeless people, including those who are mentally ill and try not to associate with anyone, those who have hearing impairment and difficulty with communication, and those who are of foreign nationalities.

“Handing out rice balls also means patrolling and checking in on people,” Mr. Noguchi says, pulling heavy bags and boxes on a cart as he walks, sweating profusely on his forehead. Other than rice balls, he carries masks, antiseptic solutions, several kinds of medicines for headaches and back pain, diapers, adhesive bandages, etc.; he hands them out to those who need them. Even though he can only spend a few minutes with each person, he would notice something unusual or problems people are facing by seeing them every week and asking them if they are feeling okay, if they don’t have any problems, or if they need anything.

It was Sunday night, and Shinjuku was packed with people. “Hey, how are you doing?” Mr. Noguchi calls out to the people he knows, pushing through the crowds and making a beeline to them. I didn’t recognize these people as homeless, as they were sitting on benches, relaxing, or simply walking the streets. Mr. Noguchi greeted them as if he were meeting friends, reminding me of how established the relationships he has with them are.

“Do you have enough masks?” “Yes, I’m fine.”
“My back hurts a little.” “Take this medicine, then.”

We conversed like that and handed out rice balls, daily necessities, and a flyer created by the Association whose first line reads, “To our friends.” The flyer lists information such as when and where shower services are available and where free accommodation is available, surely making this flyer an important source of information for the homeless people.

 

What it means to build a relationship of trust

When we tried to hand rice balls, some of them refused. “They are very reserved,” said Mr. Noguchi. Some may even not respond to our call. The people living on the street cannot see what lies ahead of the support if they choose to accept it, so without a trusting relationship, an offer of support could actually lead to problems or the people closing off their minds. Still, there are people who open up to Mr. Noguchi.

“I guess they come to us because they can’t talk to other passersby,” said Mr. Noguchi.

The stares they receive are sometimes cold. They sometimes get into troubles. The reality is that people do not necessarily want to understand homeless people.

The woman, aged 70, with whom I did this activity has been living on the streets for several years since she lost her family. She said, “Sometimes people tell me strongly to get out of their way. We are a hindrance to them. Nobody cares about us.” I could hear the frustration in her voice.

The people on the streets had not only lost their jobs or homes, but also run away from their homes because of family issues and other various problems. It is not easy to build a trusting relationship with people who have deep issues and feel that they are a nuisance to others.

There were many questions I wanted to ask them when I participated in this activity. Why did they end up living on the streets? What do they want or what do they not want? But they would be suspicious of a one-time visitor like me suddenly trying to pry their hearts open. I may even hurt them. They smile at me, but I do not know their true feelings. Accepting this fact, I could not ask them anything. Mr. Noguchi said, “You can’t know the truth just by volunteering once. I still don’t know, either.” His words left a deep impression in my heart.

 

Thinking about each person

On this day, we visited and met a total of 154 people, including those the other party met. We probably walked 10,000 steps in about two hours. The group continues this activity every week on a volunteer basis. “I wonder what it means to be a volunteer. There are times when our support can’t save people, and some of them even die.” Mr. Noguchi continued. “Even so, I hope I can be a person who can give them a little relief in their lives.”
 
3,992 people. Or even more homeless people live under the cold winter sky and in crowded places all over Japan. No matter how much support we provide, it will be difficult to reduce this number to zero. We do not even know if they want our support in the first place. That said, I do not want to turn away from the problem. I do want to know more about them, so let me start by imagining each one of them. And then, I would like to keep searching for what I can do and what society can do.
 

About Shinjuku Liaison Association
Shinjuku Liaison Association is a voluntary organization established in August 1994 by several different groups that had been working against the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s forced exclusion of the homeless. In addition to distributing rice balls, the association provides employment support, advocacy, and monthly medical consultations by volunteer doctors. Volunteers are always needed for rice ball distribution activities.
For inquiries, please call 03-6826-7802 (weekdays from 9:00 to 17:00) or
e-mail: shinjuku@tokyohomeless.com
 

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Original text by Mirai FUKUSHIMA (JNPOC’s volunteer writer), posted in NPO CROSS on December 14, 2020; translated by JNPOC