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The other side of the coin:
People-power and change
by Tamae Ishiwatari

How the "Wednesday Patrol" in Kawasaki, Japan, changed the fate of homeless people through education, fostering cooperation and understanding in the entire community.

ppwr299.jpg (15240 bytes)Tokyo, Japan
If my article on Tokyo’s "cardboard village" makes sombre reading, here is the flipside of the homeless coin — and a much more upbeat story, where people power, solidarity and simple human goodness is triumphing in the face of terrible odds.

In the city of Kawasaki, south of Tokyo, where there are some 600 homeless people within the city (population 1.2 million), a support group called the "Wednesday Patrol" or Suipato (Suiyo means Wednesday) is bringing about changes in the hostile environment generally surrounding the homeless. The group, which also includes homeless members, has battled for four long, persistent years with various authorities and has achieved some major breakthroughs — 12 tangible improvements.

To achieve them took not only four years but the sort of determination which gave them the patience to submit 163 requests to the city, negotiate with the city authorities over 31 sessions, lobby the public hospital twice and meet with the city education board four times. Not an easy example to follow in Tokyo where the problem involves plural communities, but the Wednesday Patrol’s tenacity and skilful negotiation, plus the willingness and the will of the governments to listen and to bring about changes, could be the driving force towards some kind of solution.

Concessions won

The following are some of the successes achieved after four years’ campaigning:

- Acceptance of the application for welfare under the present Life Protection Act for those with no fixed addresses — the lack of which hinders most homeless people from applying and receiving the welfare;

- Supply of food coupons;

- Opening of the year-end holiday-season emergency shelters utilizing existing public or semi-public facilities;

- Provision of medical consultations including general health examinations, testing for tuberculosis and the appointment of local medical clinics where the homeless can easily go;

- Installation of bath or shower facilities for the homeless in the city hospital;

- Elimination of the resident/police patrol which used to drive the homeless out of their neighbourhood;

- Publication of an educational pamphlet to promote understanding towards the homeless by the City Education Board;

- Introduction of school lessons to promote an understanding of homelessness;

- Acceptance of the rights for survival of the homeless, thus stopping the removal of their personal belongings from the public places without prior notice, and also closing of windows or roofs in the station area in case of wind, cold, rain, for their life protection.

You cannot struggle, campaign, negotiate and lobby for years without its impacting on your life and your self image. Outer, tangible changes yes, but the unexpected and transformative effects of their struggle has meant a more radical change still: the homeless people have gained confidence and belief in themselves. They have learnt to express themselves more openly and begun to regain self-respect, with increasing numbers of them joining the patrol where those who receive help start helping others.

Community spirit

The most remarkable change in local residents’ attitudes leading to understanding and co-operation was brought about by the year-end holiday-season shelter project. In 1994 when the first such shelter was opened in a gym, the neighbourhood community protested against this project with a 7,000-signature petition. To counteract this move, the homeless people and the supporters kept cleaning every day inside and outside the gym and the nearby streets to show residents that they, too, cared.

At first residents thought the cleaning work was being done at their (taxpayers’) expense, but on learning that the homeless people themselves were doing this, and that they were not just irresponsible, lazy, dirty people as had been thought, their prejudice began to dissipate. What also contributed to further communication was outdoor cooking, since the gym did not have any cooking facilities. This inevitably caught the attentive and cautious eyes of the community, bringing some out onto the street, and so communications began. Then the local shop association started providing vegetables and other food at low prices to the homeless and calling for donations from member shops and shoppers. Meals were then distributed to other homeless people in town.

Behind the scenes, the city itself was co-operative. Mobilizing its 200 personnel to administer the project to turn the gym into a temporary living space, they brought in and installed a washing machine, a dryer, washing-lines, luggage space and so on. The idea of utilizing the gym itself came from the officials in response to the homeless people.

Fireworks and stones

So often, a change in attitude is half the solution. Education and information are key — which is why they became part of the campaign. Here again great improvements were made.

Attacks by youth on the weak and the old has been a serious social problem nationwide. In Kawasaki, too, the homeless were often the victims of attacks with fireworks and stones. They felt their lives were threatened. With proof such as burned clothes and blankets, they negotiated with the city education board and persuaded them to join the patrol and see and hear, from those attacked directly, how terrifying it was. The target was always the weak and the old.

A similar problem is also generally seen at schools. So an educational pamphlet was made, together with the introduction of classes held at least once a year to deepen understanding in order to eliminate discrimination towards the homeless at elementary, middle, and high school levels. Some schools extended the course to six sessions, during which time the students made videos and reports of their interviews with the homeless.

"They looked so alive talking to the homeless people, as though they had been momentarily released from the stressful, competitive school and social surroundings," observed a supporter. He hopes this communication and interchange will one day lead to a humane, friendly society with social structures which do not produce homelessness or discrimination.

Akira Mizushima is one of the founding members of Suipato, which started after an incident at the end of 1992. A homeless man sleeping on the roadside near Kawasaki Station was taken to the police station, brutally assaulted for some hours, and ended up in hospital for two months. He writes: "Homeless problems represent in condensed form all the problems of our society. The personal history of one homeless person reflects the modern history of our country with the problems of war, poverty, discrimination, among others. It throws up fundamental questions about our way of life — including housing, labour, welfare, healthcare, education, community, family relations."

Mr Mizushima continues: "In the present social welfare system in combination with the 19th century legislature and laws, people who live on the street have always been categorized into two groups, one ‘unable to work’ and the other ‘able but unwilling to work.’ The former is regarded as the object of benevolence expected to receive protection respectfully, and the latter the object of re-education to do some work. Is a third way possible?"

They are not out of a job because they are being choosy about the work, as some officials are always inclined to think. The present socio-economic structure, with rising unemployment levels, does not allow them to work even if they are willing. Neither do they qualify for welfare. With the deteriorating economy, job hunting and screening for welfare applications are expected to become even tighter and more difficult. So how to create jobs? How to bring about changes in welfare — in the giver-receiver relationship? Akira Mizushima sees some clues in the activities of the shelter project.

(1) One third of the people who joined the project were ill. However, kind responses from officials and the community have turned them into active members with improved health and mentality. This challenges the present tendency of putting homeless people into isolated shelters or hospitals away from the rest of the society.

(2) One homeless member asked Suipato to open a shop. What he meant was: instead of using food coupons individually, collective use of them enables poor people to buy a variety of food, which could then be cooked and shared. Cooks can be easily found among the homeless. If they want vegetables, they could go to farmers and supply labour and receive vegetables in return. This kind of exchange could be expanded in other fields according to the talents and resources available among them. Many have skills to offer.

(3) There is a group of homeless people who collect and sell second-hand books to a local bookstore to support another member who is disabled. The bookstore knows why they are doing this and is co-operative. Couldn’t this type of co-operation be extended to other areas according to the needs of the community and of the homeless people? Payment does not necessarily have to be in money.

(4) Daily routine work that some of the homeless are doing, such as cleaning, washing and caring, can be turned into jobs by letting them sweep the parks, station etc. Also those homeless presently caring for old or sick friends could be registered as care-givers to be paid for their work.

If citizens and governments really care and think positively, Akira Mizushima hopes, perhaps another type of welfare may develop which does not use enforcement, isolation, violation of freewill, and would thereby bring about right relationship between the giver and the receiver.

Homeless people living as a group inevitably demonstrate co-operation and sharing, without which they know they cannot survive. It is our turn to prove that we, non-homeless citizens, can also co-operate and share among the different sectors of the community in addressing the homeless issue and other problems. In fact, our divisive and selfish way of life now threatens our own survival, affecting children, polluting water, air and food sources to the point of no return. Perhaps sharing and co-operation are the keys to the future?

From the January/February 1999 issue of Share International 

Companion to this article: Homelessness in Japan -- Cardboard Village and the Shogun’s Law, by Tamae Ishiwatari

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005