Over the weekend, while deadly Typhoon Hagibis ripped through Japan, details emerged that an emergency refuge refused two homeless men looking for shelter from the heavy rains and gale force winds.
Before making landfall, Typhoon Hagibis brought the entire nation to a standstill. Many residents had no experience preparing for such a powerful typhoon — the largest in 60 years. With the size of the tropical cyclone covering almost all of Japan’s main island, Honshu, Hagibis brought a sense of impending doom.
Japan’s preoccupation with following protocol was taken to deadly levels when officials in Taito ward, north of Tokyo, turned away a homeless man on Saturday morning for not being able to provide a registered address within the ward when completing evacuation paperwork. The man, who is originally from Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, spent the night under the eaves of a building nearby Ueno Station with only a plastic umbrella to shield himself from the elements.
In an interview with Asahi Shimbun, the man explained he had recently moved down from Hokkaido and was sleeping rough on the streets. Shelter staff stated they needed to give priority to a possible influx of local residents who may evacuate later in the day. However, in the afternoon another homeless man was turned away from the school-turned-shelter.
On Tuesday morning at the House of Councilors Budget Committee meeting, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised to take action, saying the two homeless evacuees should have been accepted. He said being turned away went against the very purpose of evacuation shelters which is to save lives. Abe announced an investigation into the facts and will “respond appropriately.”
In metropolitan Tokyo, more than 80,000 people evacuated to some 1,060 evacuation centers. Shelters in suburbs issued with heavy rain warnings such as Setagaya, Sumida, and Toshima ward had no problems accepting people from outside their wards.
In response to widespread criticism, Taito ward officials apologized and pledged to review their procedures. They explained they were simply following the local government disaster prevention plan, which stipulates local shelters can only be used by residents. Despite Taito ward being home to Tokyo’s main tourist attraction, Ueno Park, which also serves as a squat for a homeless community, officials confessed they had not considered how to approach a scenario of evacuees without a local address.
The incident sparked heated public debate on social media. Not all are sympathetic to homeless victims. Some supporters of the municipality’s decision took to Twitter, saying they would be scared and would not feel safe bunking down with homeless people in an evacuation center. In particular, concerns of people “who smell bad” or with questionable mental states were also raised. Others cited that since homeless people do not pay taxes, they should not, benefit from public assistance such as shelters offered by government. Some people fought back against this attitude, arguing for the need to show compassion and stressing that homeless people do contribute by paying sales tax on everyday purchases.
The death toll from Typhoon Hagibis stands at 66, but the full scope of the damage has yet to be calculated. Local media reported that one man believed to be homeless and living by the river was found dead on Sunday.
A survey conducted by the Ministry of Labor, Health and Welfare earlier this year revealed that while Shinjuku ward has the highest number of homeless people, Taito ward has the most residents with unknown or unfixed home addresses.