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Tokyo's homeless hit hard as support groups stop giving out food, masks over virus fears

A homeless man who uses two masks that he found on the streets watches as people walk by, in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on March 22, 2020. (Mainichi/Daiki Takikawa)

TOKYO -- The prolonged battle against the novel coronavirus is affecting efforts to assist people living on the streets, as support groups struggle to respond, and some have taken to halting soup kitchen events over cluster infection concerns or limiting the number of masks they hand out.

At the end of March, a man squatting down under an overpass near Tokyo's Sumida River watched as people with masks passed by. He sat next to a cart loaded with everyday commodities and other items. Like the pedestrians enjoying the warm weather and cherry blossoms, the man was also wearing a mask.

The two masks that he had in his possession were both found on the streets. He had heard rumors about the virus from an acquaintance and began wearing them due to fear of infection. "I don't really want to wear masks that were left on the ground, but I don't want to get infected either," he said.

The nonprofit organization Tenohasi, which offers support for homeless people and those in need around Tokyo's Toshima Ward, and the nongovernmental organization Doctors of the World began handing out masks from March 14 during their once-a-week night patrol and twice-a-month food distribution events.

The organizations had been offering masks in the winter to those who wanted them, even before coronavirus cases were confirmed in Japan. But to prevent the spread of infections, the two groups began to provide three masks per person -- using donations from supporters and stocks of more than 3,000 masks that they had already bought last year.

Apart from masks, Tenohasi and Doctors of the World also give out hand soap, hand sanitizers and their original guidelines on preventive measures.

When distributing food, they hand out masks to participants beforehand to avoid group infections. At one event, at least 100 people lined up while maintaining social distancing. A 67-year-old man who received support said, "I make sure to wash my mask every other day, which is better than nothing."

However, as novel coronavirus infections continue to spread in Japan without any hint of an end to the crisis, Tenohasi had to reduce the number of masks it distributes per week from three to one per person.

Akiko Takeishi, 41, of the Doctors of the World, offers medical consultations during soup kitchen events. She explained, "Homeless people often inhale dust and particles on a daily basis because they live in the open, and many of them have a weak immune system or underlying conditions. If they develop pneumonia due to the novel coronavirus, they may develop serious symptoms. They must wear masks to prevent the spread of infections."

Some other Tokyo-based support groups have stopped soup kitchen events over group infection concerns. There are reportedly organizations that do not have enough food to distribute, as homeless people in areas where soup kitchen events have stopped are getting food at events held in other areas.

A man in his 60s, who attended a food distribution event at a park near JR Ikebukuro Station on the evening of March 28, commented, "I'd have to go somewhere else if food and mask distributions are canceled, which is troubling." After receiving a boxed "bento" meal, he scurried out of the park to prevent getting infected.

Kenji Seino, secretary-general of Tenohasi, explained, "We need to avoid a further spread of infections, but canceling soup kitchen events means homeless people who were counting on them would lose their meal for that day. We would like to search for the best solution possible."

According to Tokyo's Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health, the national government notified administrative bodies in late February to instruct people living on the streets how to properly wash their hands and coughing etiquette, and to visit medical institutions if they do not feel well. An official with the bureau said, "Because we are in a situation where it's difficult to even purchase masks from stores, we have prioritized giving instructions on basic care, such as hand-washing."

(Japanese original by Daiki Takikawa, Photo Group)

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