25 October 2008

From Victorias to Fukuyama: Under the Acacia, 24-26 October 2008

My column in Negros Times for 24-26 October 2008.

From Victorias to Fukuyama

Today, October 24, sees the Thanksgiving Mass and other activities to draw to a close the Diamond Jubilee Year of the Diocese of Bacolod. Last Friday I allowed a young priest from the diocese, Fr. Ronald Magbanua, CICM, to tell about his experience as a missionary in the depth of a Mongolian winter. This week his confrere, Fr. Garry Gestoveo, CICM, from Victorias City, also in our diocese, writes about his involvement with homeless people in the affluent city of Fukuyama, Japan.


The evening I arrived at the parish of Fukuyama Church, Diocese of Hiroshima, I met Sister Marie Lisa of the Sisters of Mary Auxiliary. She was with some others preparing o-nigiri (rice balls) and miso-shiru (miso soup). I assumed that all were parishioners, they were so friendly, welcoming and warm. Later I learned from Sr. Marie Lisa that they were volunteers from different faiths and backgrounds. They were preparing dinner for the homeless of the area.

The volunteers were members of the Fukuyama Church Welfare Group, and had taken the name Tomoshibi-kai, “Lamp Society”. The group is made up of people from the YMCA school of social service, certified social workers, volunteers from the City’s Public Assistance Committee, a few Catholics from the parish and a volunteer from the Himawari-kai, “Sunflower Society”, a Protestant group. Tomoshibi-kai was formed thirteen years ago to respond to the needs of the homeless in the area.

Sister Marie Lisa told me that from 1990 to 2000 she dealt with 20 to 25 homeless people. But now there are about 60, including eleven women. Until 2002, the majority of the homeless had been middle-aged men. But in 2003, volunteers met persons ranging in age from 19 to 70. This is a national phenomenon, due to a rise in unemployment and bankruptcy, and the break-up of families.

The homeless can be found in parks, at the river side, bus stops, underground passages, bicycle ports and under railroad bridges. In the morning, some go to the train station that opens at 4am and stay until it closes at 10pm; then they look for a place to sleep again. Complaints from local people led the city’s environmental department and the Japan Railway Company (JR), to force the homeless away. But the homeless have no alternative, so often they just spread their blankets on the ground, even when it rains. When chased out of one park, they find another. When asked to leave that park, they go back to the first. Recently, the city government built a fence around the main park, shutting out both the homeless and children who wanted to play there. This caused some commotion in the neighborhood. There needs to be a balance struck: the homeless have to reconsider how they use the public facilities, and the neighborhood needs to understand the needs of the homeless.

Homeless people encounter difficulties in securing jobs through the public employment security offices, where most applicants have a proper address and health insurance. Most available jobs, such as in the shipyard, require physical strength that a 55-year-old person with marginal health doesn’t have. The homeless occasionally encounter dishonest employers who hire under practices which take advantage of their situation: charging them for food, lodging and bathing, leaving them with no earnings at the end of the contract. Some are even hired for construction work and when the job is complete are chased off without receiving any pay. It is very difficult for the Department of Labor to do anything about this.

Some used to go around the city very early in the morning to find empty beer and juice cans, selling them to shops that collect aluminum. They would get ¥700, about
PHP330, for 10 kilograms of cans. It takes days to collect that many cans and one rice ball costs about PHP45. But the city government has prohibited the collection of cans and newspapers by individuals.

With most homeless without a regular income or none at all, picking up food thrown out by restaurants or convenience stores is commonplace, making these people vulnerable to illnesses.

The government, through its Livelihood Protection Office, grants financial aid to the needy, especially to the sick. Yet, in order to be eligible, they must have a proper address, and a letter from the doctor to prove that they are in need of money for medical purposes. A guarantor is often required to secure an apartment, but most families of the homeless refuse to serve as one. The volunteers of Tomoshibi-kai try to find shelter for the sick, but inexpensive apartments are hard to come by.

One spot of hope has emerged: The Livelihood Protection Office held meetings with the volunteers of Tomoshibi-kai to exchange opinions regarding the situation of the homeless. Subsequently, some of the officers participated in the nightly distribution of rice and soup to find out more first-hand about the living conditions of the homeless. A doctor, who conducts free medical check-ups for the homeless in Tokyo, lent his experience in one seminar aimed at building positive attitudes towards the homeless.

After talking with my parish priest, I decided to join the volunteers in cooking and distributing soup and rice on Sunday evenings. This opens many possibilities for contact not only with the homeless, but also with people of this church and of the area where I live. I enjoy the company of the volunteers who are very dedicated to their mission. Indeed, as the name of the group suggests, they are bringing light to people who are neglected in society. At the same time, they bring light to people who have closed their hearts to the homeless. Although only a few parishioners join the cooking and distribution, many make an effort to give contributions of rice to Tomoshibi-kai. We have put up a box to collect funds for the food for the Sunday distribution. Though our response seems small compared to the enormous needs, I am very hopeful that more people will come to the light, and begin to open their hearts to the homeless.

1 comment:

garryjp said...

thank you father for posting my article. i am fr. garry gestoveo,cicm