Overdue bills, no work: people in need of welfare get help from congregation members in Japan

Shuhei Ogura, left, Assembly member from Adachi district, discusses livelihood reconstruction with a woman from Nakano district, Tokyo, April 19, 2021 (Mainichi / Satoshi Tokairin)

TOKYO – Faced with calls from the government to expand its economic support measures in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told the Diet: “At the end of the day, we have well-being.” However, the truth is that people cannot always immediately receive public aid at their local government office.

Aware of the hardships some people face, Shuhei Ogura, 47, a congregation member from Tokyo’s Adachi district, has been helping people in need seek social assistance and rebuild their lives for over a decade. His point of view is that “poverty is never your fault”.

Since last spring, there has been an increase in the number of times he has accompanied people to the ward office asking for public help. Ogura has formed a group of like-minded local assembly members and is expanding his circle of support.

One of the people Ogura accompanied to the Adachi neighborhood office who was able to benefit from public assistance was a woman in her thirties. The woman is from the Shinetsu area and lived in a rented apartment in Chiba Prefecture, but lost her home when she became absorbed in her hobby and did not pay her rent.

She also couldn’t make calls on her smartphone due to unpaid bills, but she didn’t give up her phone because she could use the free LINE communication app to contact her acquaintances in places where the Free wi-fi was available, as was at nearby convenience stores.

For more than three years, she had worked in a “bar for girls”, where the staff are mostly women, in Tokyo, while sleeping in an internet cafe. However, due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the bar’s opening hours have been shortened and its revenue has been cut to less than half. In August 2020, she “voluntarily resigned” because it was becoming difficult for her to work there since the bar had to carefully check not only her age but her home in case of infection.

Her savings quickly ran out, and she had to borrow repeatedly from money lending companies and others. At the end of March of this year, when she had only 1,000 yen (about $ 9) in her pocket and could no longer stay in an internet cafe, she sent an email to an organization that supports the needy, asking for ugly. She recalls: “I contacted them thinking, ‘If that doesn’t work, I might as well die. “It was Ogura who came to his aid.

This screenshot shows an online study session held on April 5, 2021, with guest speakers supporting those in need. The second person from the left in the top row is Shuhei Ogura, assembly member from Adachi Parish in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Shuhei Ogura)

Ogura gave her the necessary money the support group had prepared as an emergency loan and guaranteed her a place to stay. Later, she successfully received public assistance in the Adachi district, obtained a new certificate of residence, and found an apartment to live there.

The Mainichi Shimbun asked the woman what she would like to do when she can live in the apartment. The answer was: “I would like to cook, because Internet cafes do not have a kitchen. I only ate noodles and rice balls. She had never been able to cook due to her situation, although she was good at it.

The woman, who can once again stand in a kitchen, expressed her gratitude to Ogura. “I couldn’t understand half of the explanations given to the parish office, and I think I would have given up on asking for public aid on my own,” she said. “I want to rebuild my life from now on.”

When people ask for public assistance, the response from the welfare office, which is the point of contact for local government, is often a problem. In some cases, welfare offices fail to respond to requests from the needy, forcing them to go to the local government office where their residence is registered or to seek employment. Among those who work to help the needy, this tactic of the welfare offices of sending applicants out the door is known as a “shore operation”.

Accompanying people when they apply for public assistance is not only a way to avoid such ‘shore operations’, but can help them receive additional support to rebuild their lives afterwards, such as preparing a certificate of residence, find an apartment, and receive Support.

The assembly member stressed that “basically anyone should be able to apply for public aid smoothly on their own, without needing someone to accompany them.” He added: “There are cases where it is difficult to follow the procedures, which include re-obtaining a certificate of residence. There is a need for someone to work with them and advise them on the procedures.”

Ogura began providing full-fledged support to people seeking public aid around 2007, when he was in his first term as a member of the Adachi Parish Assembly. He says he started this activity as a result of his night patrol activities to support people who lived on the streets when he was a student.

Ogura graduated from college in the 1990s, during Japan’s “employment ice age”, when young people struggled to find jobs due to the collapse of the economic “bubble”. Unable to find a full-time job, once Ogura became a temporary worker, and another time took a day job in Kamagasaki, Osaka, an area known for its day laborers. Seeing “old men”, who had no choice but to sleep under the stars, working hard for a living, he began to aspire to a career in politics.

“I think the role of politics is to look at the reality of those who cannot speak out and act accordingly. We have to change the social system while solving the real problems,” Ogura said.

Members of local assemblies are the politicians that citizens know best. However, there are different ways of thinking among them. Some go so far as to view social assistance as “a shame,” while others focus on supporting the needy. Ogura called on Kaoru Katayama, 54, a member of the Koganei City Assembly, Tokyo, and others to form the “Association of Local Assembly Members for Coronavirus Disaster Countermeasures” in April of last year.

Currently, the association has around 200 members, mainly in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Ogura said: “I think members of the assembly who thought their supporters had no connection with public assistance could no longer remain indifferent to the spread of the coronavirus.”

Some members of the association apparently have little or no experience in supporting people seeking public aid. Ogura explained, “Asking for public aid is a matter of life and death for those in need” and he organized two online study sessions for members to experience the practical work and put it into practice with social workers from local government. He says he plans to continue learning about court cases and social conditions related to public assistance.

Sachiyo Ikeda, member of the municipal assembly of Komagane, Nagano prefecture, sees this photo taken by Chieko Yusa. (Photo courtesy of Sachiyo Ikeda)

The Tokyo metropolitan area is not alone in having such a network of local assembly members. In April last year, Sachiyo Ikeda, 49, a member of the Komagane Municipal Assembly in Nagano Prefecture, created a network of local government assembly members to help people in regional areas to receive public support, by naming the group “Local Safety Network”.

“In rural areas, people in need are isolated and neglected, and there are far fewer places where women, in particular, can seek advice or seek help if they need help winning. their life or because of work problems. Ikeda said.

The network currently has about sixty members and its Facebook page participates in their activities. On the Ikeda page created under the name of the network, it displays the names and contact details of the members of the assembly who have offered to lend a hand, so that those in need can consult them.

When a welfare recipient consulted Ikeda about being forced out of her apartment and having no money, the lawyer and social worker, who were old acquaintances of hers, asked researched in detail the precedents and past opinions, and finally the beneficiary was able to move. safely after securing the moving expenses.

Ikeda also formed the “Nagano Branch Kamiina General Union”, a union which individuals can join, as well as members of the local assembly who are active in the same area. The reason was that she had learned that many workers had no way of dealing with issues such as unpaid wages, layoffs and the inability to claim workers’ compensation insurance.

Some people questioned his activities, saying, “Is this the work of a member of a municipal assembly? But Ikeda doesn’t flinch, responding, “It’s the job of a member of a local assembly. It is preferable that the members of the assembly get involved in local work, daily life and legal consultations with the help of experts. From there we can gain a real understanding of how local people live and work, and what issues need to be addressed. ”

(Japanese original by Satoshi Tokairin, Tokyo City Public Information Department)

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