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Hokkaido group surveys homeless population in freezing night temperatures

Volunteer group members conduct a survey on homeless people in Higashi Ward, Sapporo, at 3:30 a.m. on Jan. 24. (Mainichi/Kohei Shinkai)

SAPPORO -- The spread of the coronavirus has had a major impact on people's lives and activity everywhere. People living on the streets here in Japan's northernmost prefecture are no exception, with infection prevention measures depriving them of places to rest.

    This Mainichi Shimbun reporter accompanied a central Sapporo volunteer group that supports people living on the streets in their survey of the number of homeless people in the area, conducted in the early hours of Jan. 24.

    At 1:00 a.m., a reading of minus 8 degrees Celsius was showing on an electronic thermometer in a building facing Odori Park in Sapporo's Chuo Ward. About 40 people, including group members, had gathered at the basement floor of Sapporo City Hall to carry out the city-commissioned survey for the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. The survey is done late at night, when homeless people are less mobile. Because some of them were resting, we confirmed their numbers without talking to them.

    The entire city was divided into 10 districts, and at 2 a.m. each group of three to four people headed to their assigned ones on foot or by car. By relying on members' experiences, my group walked in narrow alleys with no streetlights and searched though bus terminals, laundromats, multi-story parking lots and other places.

    After walking for about half an hour, we stopped at the stairs to an underground walkway. In the darkness, we spotted a man leaning against the wall, laying out cardboard and wearing several layers of clothes. He didn't seem to notice us and kept his eyes closed. Most of homeless people spend their time near train stations and underground shopping malls, but from around midnight to 5 a.m., the shutters come down and they are left out. The bitter cold means homeless people risk their lives to even rest in this city.

    The survey ended at 6 a.m. The welfare ministry will now compile the results and announce them by prefecture in a few months. According to the ministry, there were 109 people living on the streets in Sapporo in 2008, during the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent financial crisis, but since then their number has been gradually decreasing and was hovering between 30 and 40 in the last five years. In the independent survey conducted by the association last summer, about 40 were recorded as homeless, and the survey this time indicated there had been no change.

    But the coronavirus pandemic has altered homeless people's daily lives. According to the volunteer group, they tend to keep walking at night to ward off the cold and stay in warm places during the day, but with benches in the city center removed to prevent infections, they have fewer places to rest in the day.

    The volunteer members meet for about two hours from 7:00 p.m. on every Saturday except for the fourth of the month, and ask homeless people in the vicinity of JR Sapporo Station and on main streets including Odori and Tanukikoji about their problems while handing them disposable body warmers, sweet bread and drinks. They have also been handing out masks to prevent infections since the pandemic took place. In addition to providing meals and daily necessities to them, the members also accompany people on the streets to medical checkups and to consultations on employment and public assistance.

    With no end in sight to the spread of coronavirus infections, people's lives are under pressure and the country's economy is being exhausted. But the city government reported that the number of applications for public assistance has remained at parity with the previous year, meaning there has been no impact so far.

    "If the coronavirus pandemic continues for a long time, it's possible the number of people living on the streets will increase," said Ryo Ogawa, 28, a deputy representative of the association who works at the Sapporo homeless counseling and support center "Join."

    "There are many people getting by on the government's general support funds, which are loans mainly to unemployed individuals. But if the loans aren't extended, the number in need will increase rapidly. They must be connected with public assistance before they end up on the streets," Ogawa continued.

    Hiroki Kameyama, 23, a graduate student researching poverty and who participated in the survey, said "It made me realize that there are scenes in the city I live in that I don't usually see. With so many people suffering right now, I want to think about what I can do."

    The welfare ministry-sponsored survey is conducted every year around January. The results are used as official data for measures formulated by the ministry based on the law supporting people in need.

    (Japanese original by Kohei Shinkai, Hokkaido News Department)

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