By Atsuko Matsumoto / Japan News Staff Writer It was a bitterly cold winter day. More than 500 homeless people lined up for three hours to get an onigiri rice ball. Kana Kawaguchi clearly remembers what she saw, at the age of just 14, on her first day volunteering at a soup kitchen in the so-called Airin district in northern Nishinari Ward, Osaka.
“After coming home, I put my feet under a kotatsu table, but I couldn’t feel the warmth at all. Instead I felt a massive sense of guilt growing inside of me,” Kawaguchi, now 27, recalled in a recent interview. “I blamed myself for being inside the house while those men were still out there suffering.”
The teenager’s visit to the district was triggered by a simple query about a particular area on the way to her school. A schoolmate always avoided using a train station near there, while her mother warned her never to go outside the station.
Even as a child, “I knew there must be something going on there that adults wanted to hide [from children],” Kawaguchi said.
Driven by curiosity, she soon learned that the district is also known as Kamagasaki. It had been visited by Mother Teresa, and soup-kitchen volunteers were needed there. Wanting to see a place once visited by the Nobel laureate, she joined the volunteers, telling her mother she would go to a Sunday morning basketball game.
“At first, I thought, ‘Why don’t they do some part-time work to make money and buy better food?’” she said, referring to a preconceived notion she had. “I just believed if they had made more effort, they probably wouldn’t have become homeless.”
A day in Kamagasaki made her acutely aware that the environment you were born into could greatly affect your life. Many people who became homeless grew up in dysfunctional homes. Some fell victim to abuse, while others had to spend time in foster care facilities. Kawaguchi realized that she just happened to be one of the lucky ones, living in a house with her parents.
New approach to assistance
Her youthful curiosity was overwhelmed by the experience, which remained engraved on her mind. Five years later, Kawaguchi at the age of 19 founded Homedoor, an Osaka-based group to help homeless people in various aspects of life, which became a nonprofit organization the next year.
She began with a morning-hours cafe in Kamagasaki aimed at men who returned to the district after late-night work collecting cans, in a bid to ascertain what homeless people really need.
Homedoor has since expanded its assistance to people on the verge of becoming homeless as well as those who already are. Its efforts range from helping them find jobs to providing them with places to sleep, food and clothes. In fiscal 2017, 289 people came to the Homedoor office for consultations about how to improve their lives.
“If they don’t want to become homeless, they don’t have to. If they want to escape homelessness, they can,” Kawaguchi said, explaining the pillars of Homedoor’s activities. “We try to close the door to falling into homelessness and prepare an exit for anyone wanting to get out.”
Among the main projects is the HUBchari rental bike service, in which homeless men are mainly in charge of bike maintenance and battery replacement.
“I wanted to start a service at which they can use their skills, but customers wouldn’t know they’re homeless,” Kawaguchi said.
Customers use the service because they want to, not because they want to financially support people in need. Stressing the concept, Kawaguchi described HUBchari as “a new way of approaching homeless issues because users can support the homeless without realizing it.”
Since the 2012 launch, HUBchari has expanded its service, currently operating 47 stations. But many users remain unaware that paying for the service indirectly contributes to helping homeless people, Kawaguchi said.
Her activities have caused Kawaguchi to strongly feel that the definition of “homeless” is changing, raising concern that “the entire nation appears to be turning into Kamagasaki.”
Districts like Kamagasaki, Tokyo’s Sanya and Yokohama’s Kotobukicho developed as flophouse areas for day laborers. The districts function as bases where the homeless find their day’s work and return to sleep. But nowadays, day laborers don’t bother to go to these districts because they find jobs by mobile phone and sleep in net cafes, according to Kawaguchi.
“Under such circumstances, we can no longer tell where the poverty lies. It’s easy when a place like Kamagasaki exists, as it’s a symbolic place for us to carry out our activities to provide assistance,” Kawaguchi said. “But now, such places are scattering all over in Japan, making those in need invisible in society.”
A lack of interest in others and the belief that each individual should be blamed for their own plight are also obstacles to Homedoor’s activities, particularly in raising funds for the homeless, she said.
“It would be easy to collect donations for poor children overseas. But when it comes to aid for domestic poverty, especially for middle-aged homeless men, many people find it hard to see why they have to help them,” Kawaguchi said.
Knowing is the beginning
Homeless people’s needs vary according to the person, ranging from jobs, food and accommodations to access to medical care. Some men come to the Homedoor office only for a haircut and a shower, while others come to take part in seasonal events held there. Among the men Kawaguchi regularly talks to on the street, some have never gone to the center.
But they told Kawaguchi they would rely on Homedoor when they are desperately in need. “I believe building such loosely linked bonds with them is also very important,” she said.
In the eighth year since the establishment of Homedoor, Kawaguchi feels more certain about its activities. The group began with three college students but now has 800 registered volunteers.
In May, Homedoor moved to a five-story building with 20 bedrooms and other facilities necessary for daily life for those who need a place to sleep. It is based on a design that Kawaguchi drew by hand when she was a high school student.
She said, “If you come to this place, you can get out of your life on the street, 100 percent.”
Kawaguchi aims to devise a successful model case to help homeless people get out of life on the streets and expand it nationwide by proposing it to local governments.
“To make it happen, if Homedoor can play a role in an experimental period trying to find the best way, that will be great,” she said with a smile.
“Once you are aware of the homeless issue, I believe it generates some sort of responsibility in you,” she said.