Thursday, April 23, 2009

A visit to Sanyukai.

Poverty. What does it mean?

Many say it's about not having enough money to make a living, while some others put it in a different way: they are people who have not only lost their money, but also their families and all their trustworthy social relationships, as well as self-esteem and pride. While a good portion of the general public in other countries still see Japan as the darling of economic prosperity, and even the typical Japanese are not too aware, the poor population has been slowly increasing over the years, and at a quicker pace more recently. Poverty does exist in Japan, and it does in Tokyo.

In April, I paid a visit to Sanyukai again, a non-profit organization (NPO) that runs a free clinic, provides temporary housing, clothes, and food for the homeless. Located in the heart of Sanya district, an area that has become synonymous with poverty and homelessness, the group has been carrying out outreaches to hand out clothes and food, and so-called 'clinic tickets' for those who seek medical consultation for over a decade. The clinic is totally free (one of only two free clinics in Japan for the homeless), but naturally, it's sometimes not easy for a person to come and drop by, but reaching out to them and giving them these 'invitations' not only encourages them to come but also "makes them feel easier" to do so, says one staff. Situated in the northeastern part of the huge bustling city, Sanya has been a home for many who work on a daily wage basis, taking advantage of its proximity with factories in the area and the abundance of rediculously-cheap hostels.

So what did I do? I participated in one of the outreaches they carry out on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Why? Because I like it. And this phrase means much more than it's said. I go to Shinjuku every day, and it's not too difficult to find a homeless there since nearby Shinjuku Central Park is home to a good number of them, so I have always felt that they are part of the picture I am in in some way. But what is there that I could do by myself? If I do have some leftover food I am not going to eat it, could I give it to them? But what would that do to their self-esteem? Do they really want that? After all, unlike in the U.S., begging is not common here. We belong to the same world, the same society, but there is something that is separating us. But through the outreach, I can be of some help and talk to the homeless without hesitating, and it really gives you the feeling that as if it not only opened the door for them but for yourself too. It's like this: they are near you but not as near as it seems, but you've finally found a way to step closer to them. Surprisingly, many seem to be happy even when we just say "hello, how's it going?". They've got lots of things they want to talk with you. That smile on their faces I don't forget.

What is poverty? What is homelessness? I've been thinking about this for a while, and ironically, Mr. Hiroshi Goto, one of the staff there, pointed out something that I had heard before two years ago from a staff working in a homeless shelter in San Francisco: we shouldn't really 'categorize' them as homeless, but as people who have had various difficulties in the past that led them to how they are now. And that's true. They have come different ways. The 'issue' for each of them is different from person to person. And in the U.S., add to that those who have willingly chosen to become homeless. But there are things they have in common too. They have no money, no shelter, nobody to rely on, and have been deprived of dignity and self-respect.

The number of people living under government aid, called the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, has been increasing, and at a faster pace now with the slowing global economy. Back in 1992, that number was 585,972, but it reached 998,887 in 2004 and surpassed 1,000,000 in 2005, and as of March 2009, it stood at 1,168,306. Now, especially in these unsure times, it is not so difficult for a person to take a moment or two to think about poverty and take that as an issue that is not unrelated. With just a combination of some accidents, wrong-doings, or unfortunate consequences, anyone could find him/herself without a home. However, we must also keep in mind that the real homeless, the 'true' poor, have been deprived of all they could be, including friendships, families, and even their self-esteem. Whether that is the responsibility of the individual, or another, or the society, or more than one of those, varies from person to person. But we have to understand. And I think there is something we can do.

Sanyukai is not merely a group that gives out a hand to the homeless, but one that is helping the absolute poor and using several creative ways at different levels to help the homeless empower themselves and become self-dependent. The true poor are deprived of their family and friends, and it starts from re-building relationships or making new ones. Every day, Sanyukai puts seats and some tables in front of their compact three-story building, and it acts as a place of gathering for the homeless. Sipping a cup of green tea that Sanyukai serves, they come and tell about the meal they had the evening before or joke about the noisy neighbor cat that wouldn't let him go to sleep. It's a place for socializing and relaxing, and up to around 15 people can be seen on some days. Some stay for lunch and eat with the staff. Whether it's a staff or a visiting homeless, everyone eats the same food here. And many of them visit on a routine basis, some even every day, so it is also an effective way for the staff to see who didn't appear on a day and try to find out what happened.

Last month, Sanyukai was ordered by the metropolitan government to stop handing out its weekly free meals in one of the areas, after local residents filed a number of complaints saying the outreaches attracted more homeless and that "children are afraid" of them. One of the continuing challenges is how to have the local community understand their activities. There is a quote from a book by French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. "Men travel side by side for years, each locked in his own silence or exchanging words which carry little or no fright, until danger comes. Then they stand shoulder to shoulder. They discover that they belong to the same family."


Atika said...

Hi, I chanced upon your blog while googling on the homeless people in Tokyo. I am in Tokyo right now and these people have somehow touched my heart. If you don't mind, can you kindly share with me how can I get to the Sanyukai HQ from Shinjuku station...for example, which station is the closest to the HQ? Thank you so much and have a good day. :)

Ryosuke said...

Thanks for leaving a comment. The closest station to their HQ is Minami-Senju on the Hibiya Line. Here's their map:
Feel free to contact me if you want me to introduce you to them.