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Japan's homeless face ageism

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Living in a shack under Tokyo's elevated expressway, Hiroshi finds himself hitting an invisible wall - his age.

The stocky man in his early 50s, who declined to give his real name, started living on the street after losing his job as a forklift operator. Despite decades of experience in that job, he cannot get rehired.

"I apply for the position many times, but companies never look at my skill but only pay attention to my age," he says, shaking his head in wonder.

Hiroshi's experience is not unique. The number of homeless people in Japan is on the rise, and experts say that ingrained cultural attitudes about age are exacerbating the situation. The problem has become so prevalent that Doctors Without Borders - a nongovernmental health organization accustomed to missions in the poorest of nations - has sent staff to this hi-tech, high-rise capital.

In central Tokyo, the number of the homeless nearly doubled to about 6,000 in February 2003 from 3,200 five years ago. A first-ever nationwide survey found 25,296 homeless people in Japan. But the actual number of the homeless is much larger, insist those close to the issue.

The survey also shows that the average age of the homeless is 55. 9 years old and that those from 50 to 64 years old make up about two-thirds of that population. Moreover, about 55 percent of them used to work in construction; many were day laborers who toiled without fringe benefits to help Japan flourish in the postwar era. But the recession has hit contractors hard.

In February this year, Tokyo announced that 2,000 apartment rooms would be rented out in the next two years to park dwellers. The government will employ them for six months in such jobs as cleaning or guarding public spaces.

Some welcomed Tokyo's step and said other big cities should follow suit. But Mitsuo Nakamura, a leader of a support group for the homeless, says renting out rooms is not the answer.

"Many of the homeless are desperate for a job. But there are no jobs," Mr. Nakamura says. "We should respect their willingness to work."

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