Japan has almost ended rough sleeping, so why don’t we learn from them?

On any given night shockingly high numbers of people sleep on the streets in America, while over the past 14 years, there has been an impressive and steady decline in the number of people sleeping rough in Japan.

The UK’s obsession with America, and an ignorance of Japan (and South East Asian in general) that borders on racism, means that we inexplicably spend far more time learning about American efforts to end homelessness than we do learning about what’s happened in Japan.

This chart shows the number of people seen sleeping on the street on one evening in both America and Japan over the past 20 years.

The contrast is striking. There has been a steady decline in Japan, whilst numbers in America continue to be abysmally high.

The Centre for Homleessness Impact have recently published the fourth edition of their excellent Evidence and Gap Maps Effectiveness Report. The table below shows that the vast majority of studies featured come from America.

So what happened in Japan? How has the number of people sleeping rough been reduced so consistently?

There are plenty of places to start but one dramatic incident in 2007 brought the issue to life for many people in Japan. 600 police officers and guards forcibly evicted people that had been sleeping in Nagai Park. The prompt was the IAAF World Championships that was being held that year and the desire to present a positive image of Japan to the world’s media.

As well as this crackdown, changes were made to the ‘Seikatsu Hogo’ (public assistance for livelihood protection).

The Japanese social security system is not, by international standards, particularly generous. While in theory the constitution says that “all citizens have the right to live a healthy and cultural minimum life”, in practice a single person who is out of work would be lucky to get benefits worth £800 per month.

What changed in the mid 2000s and onwards was the way the system was administered. Residency requirements were changed so that, for example, day labourers could qualify.

The system has several key elements:

  • A simple application process
  • A decision within 14 days 
  • Housing assistance is automatically provided if the person qualifies for the main support programme. This enables recipients to rent one of the low cost units that are available in Japanese cities, often in neighbourhoods with accommodation aimed at day labourers.

The ‘generality’ of the system means that in Japan it is far easier for those that need help to get it than it is in other countries, even when those other countries have a more generous system. 

Of course, street counts only give a partial picture of the number of people sleeping on the streets, and Japan is not perfect, not least for foreigners who find it difficult to claim benefits and too many people still sleeping in internet cafes and the like.

However, if you go to a conference on promising approaches to ending homelessness you will no doubt hear presentations about how housing first was developed in America and the enormous potential of this and other American approaches.

That’s not wrong but it is a little strange to spend so much time learning from America, a society where a startlingly high number of people sleep on the streets. Instead we should learn from Japan, which has so successfully used the benefits system to dramatically reduce the number of people sleeping rough.

This is timely since England is currently implementing a policy of reducing the generosity of our benefit system, while giving multi-year funding agreements to services that aim to prevent people from experiencing homelessness.


Comparison of Japan and America


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