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Open Olympic facilities to protect Tokyo's homeless from COVID-19

Japan must take care of rough sleepers to help them and broader population

| Japan
A homeless man sleeps on a bench in Tokyo on Mar. 15: the homeless are one of the most at-risk populations.   © LightRocket/Getty Images

David H. Slater is professor of cultural anthropology at Sophia University and director of the Voices from Japan Oral Narrative Project. Ikebe Sara was a student in the Voices from Japan Homeless Project and is now a Ph.D. student in linguistics at Tokyo University.

I was handing out rice balls in front of the West Exit of Shinjuku station when I overheard two homeless men reading from a scrap of newspaper. The taller man was gaunt, with the ruddy complexion that comes from sleeping on the street.

The reason why the station was so empty, he explained to the other man, was that people had been told to "stay home" so as not to catch the "corona." He asked me, "What does that mean for us to stay home?"

The other man, perplexed, looked around at the 20 or so homeless men sleeping by the station and said, "Does that mean you get the sickness if you hang around outside, like here? Is the sickness here?"

The most likely answer is yes. If the world's other major cities are any indication, there are surely positive cases of COVID-19 among the city's homeless people. In fact age, poor health and insufficient hygiene all make it more likely that COVID-19 is spreading among them.

Homeless people cannot stay home when they have no home. They cannot practice social distancing when many public spaces where they once lived are now closed or otherwise off limits. Without shelter, they are a risk to themselves and to others. Tokyo needs to take action to help them now.

The biggest lesson from coronavirus outbreaks in homeless populations elsewhere in the world is that waiting is dangerous. The number of COVID-19 infections increased from five to 70 in three days in a San Francisco homeless area before the city began to take systematic action because the city wasted time.

There have already been 20 deaths at one homeless encampment in New York City, and more infections than the city can manage. By one estimate, London would need to set aside 45,000 places for the homeless and rough sleepers in order to protect them, an almost impossible task.

With a two-week incubation period and so many living in close contact, by the time cases of infection and deaths surface among the homeless population, it will be too late to manage the outbreak.

Opening up the facilities in Tokyo that have been readied for the Olympics, as well as other indoor spaces large enough to allow for social distancing, is an easy and necessary next step. This is the sort of measure Tokyo took after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Many will remember the images of civic centers and gymnasiums with makeshift partitioned sleeping areas; similar accommodation could be made available to Tokyo's homeless population.

Such a measure would be better than nothing but, unlike in 2011, protection from COVID-19 requires social distancing. Unfortunately, as Kato Ayumi, director of Moyai, one of the largest homeless support groups in Tokyo, says there are around 1,000 people sleeping rough and around 4,000 people living in internet cafes in Tokyo: "While the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has made some spaces available for those pushed out of their housing, this will not be enough."

In the context of the population of greater Tokyo, estimated at 38 million in 2016, this is a manageable situation if we act quickly and smartly.

But the current sheltering practices for the homeless are misguided. As Kato notes, many of the shelters that are being used in Tokyo today are cramped, poorly ventilated and without partitions. They might actually be more dangerous than living on the street.

As one of the homeless men said, "I do not like going in the shelters anyway, but if there are some germs, it's even worse. We'll all just die there."

Following the lead of cities like London, we could provide shelter for the homeless by using some of the many empty Tokyo hotel rooms. This would also support the hotel industry, which is being hit hard by the crisis. The hotels could be staffed by those who have lost their jobs, some of whom are on the verge of becoming homeless themselves.

Beyond these measures, we should consider free testing for all homeless individuals, along with the distribution of hygiene products like hand sanitizer and protective equipment like masks.

In high-density Tokyo, the homeless are one of the most at-risk populations now, their situation made even more precarious by COVID-19. It would be easy and relatively cheap to protect them and the rest of the population. We should take steps to do so immediately, before the reports of infections and deaths begin to come in.

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