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Shinjuku Ward gov't accused of driving homeless from hotel support scheme in Tokyo

The Shinjuku Ward Office building is seen in this May 2019 file photo, in Tokyo. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The Shinjuku Ward Office encouraged homeless people staying in business hotels under a metropolitan government support program to leave the facilities without telling them they were eligible to stay longer due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, it has emerged.

The ward government's response led to the whereabouts of a total of 89 people who had been receiving the support being unknown as of June 2. A majority of them currently appear to have no work or housing, and the ward's response has been criticized as having "driven out" vulnerable people.

According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and other sources, people who lost their usual shelter in internet cafes due to temporary business closures as part of measures against the spread of the novel coronavirus started staying in provided hotel accommodation from April 11. Among these people, those who were introduced to the service via municipal government help desks were informed they would be able to stay in the hotels until the end of May. But on May 22, the metropolitan government advised municipal authorities that the period of stay had been extended to June 7.

During this period, the Shinjuku Ward Office reportedly served notices on three occasions to people staying temporarily in business hotels, with the last one sent on May 29. In the latest advisory, recipients of support were informed they should check out by the morning of June 1, and that they should consult with a local social welfare office thereafter. There was no reference at all made to the May 22 update received from the metropolitan government concerning the extension of stays until June 7.

A June 2 report by the ward government found that of the 172 people who stayed in hotels with its support, 74 had decided to receive welfare benefits. Of the remaining 98 people, 89 now can't be contacted, while nine reportedly returned to the hotels.

The head of the Shinjuku Ward Office's life and welfare department responded to a request for comment, saying, "We were very concerned about people losing a place to stay after checking out of the hotels. The point of the scheme was to have people first leave the hotels, and then those with concerns about where they would stay would come to a welfare office for consultation." Because some people did return to the hotels, the official said, "We don't consider there to have been a problem with our response."

A metropolitan government official commented, "Implementation (of the support scheme) is left to the judgement of municipal governments." But the official expressed skepticism about the ward's handling of the cases, saying, "At the very least, the movements of people who left after using the service should be known." There have been no reports of other municipal authorities pursing a similar course of action to that taken by Shinjuku Ward.

Ren Onishi, 33, the director of certified incorporated nonprofit organization Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living, based in Shinjuku, told the Mainichi Shimbun: "Consequently this was an irresponsible response that chased people out of hotels." He added, "It's also a problem that who leads the support system itself is difficult to grasp," and went on to say, "Whether it's the metropolitan or ward government, or a private organization, someone should take responsibility and see these things through to the end."

(Japanese original by Shohei Kawamura, Tokyo Bureau)

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