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Tokyo park's homeless wonder where to go after eviction, removal of belongings

A number of people living in Mitake Park were receiving food and drink aid, pictured in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Dec. 10, 2022, before the forced removal of their belongings. (Mainichi/Shinji Kurokawa)

TOKYO -- As it gets colder by the day, homeless residents in Japan's capital are facing a harsh winter. The Mainichi Shimbun spoke to one of them who was living in a Shibuya park before the ward closed it off and removed their belongings.

    On Dec. 20, the government of Shibuya Ward enacted an administrative order to remove the tents and other belongings left by a number of homeless people who were residing in Mitake Park, near Shibuya Station, to prepare for a redevelopment project.

    One of the former residents said, "Shinjuku Station? Near the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building? I wonder where I should go now."

    The 48-year old man was moving place to place, living in Shinjuku Station and elsewhere after a downturn in his family business forced him from his home. About three months ago, he found others living in tents on blue tarps in Mitake Park. Due to shaky health, the man does day labor, earning around 30,000-40,000 yen (about $225-300) per month, while also slowly tapping into his meager savings. On weekends, he lined up at a volunteer-run soup kitchen. The place the man called home, as well as the spot where the soup kitchen was held, were both taken over by the city in its forced eviction.

    As the year closes and temperatures drop, the man moved to a nearby park with the guidance of volunteers and others. Despite setting up a new tent and having a blanket on top of his sleeping bag, the man continued to shiver. "I'm so cold," he said.

    The park site and adjacent areas are being redeveloped by the ward and the metropolitan government. Commercial facilities and a multi-purpose hall will be housed in the new mixed-use building, slated for completion in 2026.

    The ward set up a temporary enclosure around the park in late October to prepare for construction, and asked the former residents of the park to remove their belongings. The residents were offered temporary housing in private residences rented at the city's expense.

    An official stated, "We took a humanitarian approach," adding that the removal of the residents' belongings by administrative subrogation was because, "A park is not a place to live, nor is it a place to keep one's things. Under the City Planning Act and other laws, we acted as the park's manager and asked the residents to remove their belongings. However, they did not do so, so we took this move."

    Some of the man's friends took up the ward's offer for housing. But the man is hesitant and distrustful due what he's heard about violence and theft at housing offered by the government.

    After the administrative order was enacted, Shibuya Ward workers remove belongings left at Mitake Park in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Dec. 20, 2022. (Mainichi/Yohei Koide)

    Keeping his tent and belongings at the nearby park is also considered "illegal occupation" by the ward. "I don't know when they will be taken away. No matter which park I try to sleep at, I'm instantly chased down. It isn't easy to sleep outdoors, either," the man said, gazing up at the sky.

    According to official counts by the metropolitan government, the number of homeless in Tokyo has been declining, falling under 1,000 in 2020. This August, the figure stood at 693.

    The reasons leading to their homelessness vary. According to Tokyo-based advocacy group Nojiren, lots of people who moved into the government-offered apartments went on to receive public assistance. However, there are also those who opt not to receive welfare, for reasons such as not wishing to the government to inquire with their relatives if they can assist or not. A member of the group said, "These destitute people all have their own circumstances. I want the government to act after carefully listening to them about those circumstances."

    About 40 aid agencies for those in poverty, including the "Hanhinkon network," or Anti-poverty network, submitted an emergency petition to Shibuya Ward on Dec. 22, asking for the removal of the park's residents to be ceased. In it, they wrote, "The timing of the forced removal at the end of the year puts the lives of those sleeping rough in danger. The government's actions only strengthen their distrust of the welfare system."

    (Japanese original by Shinji Kurokawa, Tokyo City News Department)

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