TOKYO (AP) – A group representing the homeless is asking to use the athletes’ village for next year’s Tokyo Olympics as a refuge during the coronavirus pandemic.
An online petition to the organizers of the Tokyo Olympic Games and the city government has collected tens of thousands of signatures for permission to occupy the huge housing complex that borders Tokyo Bay.
The village was to house 11,000 Olympic athletes and 4,400 Paralympic athletes. It is largely full and empty with the Olympic opening postponed by the virus epidemic until July 23, 2021.
“We don’t know how long this recession will last, so we need to change the way we think,” Ren Ohnishi, president of the Moyai Support Center for Independent Living, told Associated Press. “It includes how we work, how we manage housing, how we help those who need it.”
Organizers of the Tokyo Olympics declined to comment, and the Tokyo metropolitan government also had no immediate comments on the petition. Organizers have said it is not clear when the petition will be submitted.
The petition reads in part: “If the epidemic continues for some time, many people are at risk of falling into poverty or losing their homes.”
The homeless in Tokyo living on the streets represent around 1,000 people. According to a study by the Tokyo government, another 4,000 people are staying in so-called “Internet cafes” – about 500 in number – which offer Internet access and overnight cabins.
Many internet cafes were closed after the government asked businesses where the coronavirus could be spread to close voluntarily.
The city government has prepared about 500 rooms in hotels for those who are no longer able to stay in Internet cafes, and others are prepared if needs increase, said city official Kazuo Hatananaka.
Experts believe that homeless communities can worsen the spread of the pandemic due to the inability to practice social distancing.
“Society must develop in a more inclusive way, or the epidemic will spread,” said Ohnishi. “Our society is put to the test. Many people in Japan still accuse the poor of causing their own distress. “
Although Tokyo seems orderly and prosperous, the city has a subclass of homeless people. They can be seen along rivers, under railways and nestled in parks. Homeless communities have emerged, many living in cardboard boxes.
Nearly 16% of Japanese people fall below the poverty rate with an annual income below the threshold of 1.2 million yen ($ 11,000), according to Japanese government data from 2017. The poverty rate of single-parent households with children is higher, at 51%.
The dismantling of extended family support networks and precarious employment have left many people in Japan vulnerable to setbacks that can lead to homelessness. Japan’s compliance culture also leaves people ashamed to ask for help.
The Athletes Village complex is a joint real estate venture involving major developers and the city of Tokyo. It will eventually include 24 buildings, including high-end condominiums priced above $ 1 million. Some units have been sold and are expected to be occupied after the close of the Olympic Games.
Japan has more than 9,000 reported cases of coronavirus with around 200 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Tokyo’s daily case reports have climbed to more than 100 in the past few weeks, and concerns are growing that hospitals will run out of beds.
Coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people and can include fever, cough, and mild pneumonia. But those without severe symptoms have compounded the problem by unintentionally spreading the disease. Cases worldwide have reached more than 2 million people.
Japan has declared a “state of emergency”, initially centered on Tokyo and six other urban areas. This week it was expanded nationwide.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike mentioned the use of the village complex to house quarantined people or patients who do not require intensive care in hospitals. But the city has purchased hotel and secure space for other accommodation, such as prefabricated houses built for security during the Olympics, for such use.