Activities to provide work, space and new relationships

The Asian Workers Network (AWN) asks your Cooperation
Social and Pastoral Bulletin issue: No. 120 / June 15th, 2004

Whenever Christians think of their commitment to promote justice, in other words, of their dedication to social justice ministry, they must look for the distortions or dark spots in society and their deeper roots. It is our belief that once a person gets in contact with social darkness s/he can discover the light that destroys that darkness, because the spirit of God, the Father, has been always working in human society. In the task of social involvement we do not only fight evil, we also try to look for the bright aspects to find possible alternatives to support. It is very important for us to walk under the light. In mentioning dark spots of society and its victims we, naturally, should address the visible existence of homeless people in Japan. The article that follows brings forth a test experience that shows a light shining in the darkness and renovates social realities about to be lost in our Japanese society. Such realities are 1) A sense of solidarity and cooperation (not private individuals that are afraid of becoming dropouts due to enforced competition) 2) Creativity (not daily repetition of regulations) 3) Value of work (not just as means of survival, but as the concrete realization of the concept of being useful to others) 4) Local community (not groups of individuals ignorant of their neighbors). I’m myself a member of the steering committee of AWN.
(Shimokawa Masatsugu / Chairperson of Jesuit Social Apostolate)
Yuasa Makoto (AWN staff member)

Introduction
The motto of AWN, established in the year 2002, is “working together we continue living.” This is a visible goal to be experienced.
I have been working for about 10 years to support the homeless with an attitude of “companionship,” but the stance of the present activities is something new to me. Up to now, as a supporter, my activities differed from the site of work and living.
How different are my experiences now compared to my former activities? I hope that my views are able to express my personal experiences while I introduce AWN.

Recycle shop AWN

First Steps: Handyman Business
My first contacts with AWN go back to about a year ago. In fact AWN was established a year ahead, on August 2002. The following is the message attached to its inauguration: “The persons concerned (homeless) as well as their supporters work together and handle their businesses in such a way that, no matter the continuation of homelessness, they manage to assure themselves with a minimum income of 30,000 Yen to survive.” The first business was the opening of a recycling shop by obtaining second-hand clothing and selling it in a free market.

At that time, I was not yet involved in the activities and I cannot explain the details, but anyhow, the first aim was, “to get a monthly income of 30,000 Yen through work, in order to have food and to be able to go to a public bath.” AWN rented a 66 m2 space for a shop and an office with a bathroom attached to it. An organization, called Food Bank, donated rice and food and that helped to continue the activities. The drop-in-center functions of the place together with the work done supported the persons concerned.

I hear that the income of the first month was just enough to pay the needed 130,000 Yen for the rent of the place. In December 2002 the 3 staff from among the concerned persons were able to earn the 30,000 Yen proposed as a goal. Besides them, two more persons from the supporters’ side were also working full-time there. It is easy to imagine the pain at the time.

On the other side, I worked as a volunteer with a different organization to provide jointly guarantors for those in difficult economic situations to rent rooms, and we had to clean up the place when people had to leave the apartments. In other words, we were troubleshooters. The job consisted of solving the trouble, once the people had already left. This was an impossible mission. I did not want to undertake a work without any future vision, but there are times when something has to be done and I asked myself how could I perform the same task providing a vision to it? I reached the conclusion that maybe work done jointly by the homeless people with the assistance provided by the ones supporting their lives could become the answer. In normal circumstances, some kind of a survey could indicate who will settle things and how, what would be the cost. Then, I thought seriously about taking it as my job and transforming it in real business. Just, by the time, AWN business was stagnant after reaching the 600,000 Yen ceiling and the plans for breaking the 30,000 Yen income-wall had been revealed. The answer lied in producing more jobs, so that more companions could earn more income. That was the beginning of handyman business.

Step 2: Post Handyman Business
The first enterprise of the handyman business was to settle the problem of a rented apartment on 30 July 2003. Three main forces acted together.

Firstly, the persons concerned. The work of dividing meticulously the old clothing for selling is different from moving a house and settling everything by handyman business, such work is done by the persons concerned. People like myself, failed intellectuals, unaccustomed to labor, learn many things from persons concerned when we work together with them. Such is the case, in packing and shipping loading, in using tools, handling and transporting heavy things. This is also true when having a break or taking a rest.

The second strength comes from the supporters. The total work is not finished at the site of work. The same that the production of goods does not stop at the production line, but rolls through the sales and the purchasing of stocks till the goods are sold, handyman business goes through the business process of taking orders by phone, making cost estimates, sending salesmen, preparing the cars and doing publicity, giving the keys of the apartments and doing office work of writing bills and receipts, so that by filling all various business steps the work is finally completed. In fact, those concerned lack experience in office work and find it difficult. Although I do not have much experience either, at present I can make estimates and because of that I can give proper information to others.

 Thirdly, we lean on the strength of the collaborators. Due to the orders done by people, handy business can begin functioning. Minor movements like the ones of homeless people lack money, techniques and power and by making the best use of manpower, their only strength, they create jobs. At the beginning, incredulously, people say, “let’s try,” and we have found that persons that provide work are the source of support for the handy business.

At the start, we fixed the goal: “a monthly allowance of 80,000 Yen to all those who commit themselves for a year” and partly making fun of the business, customers as well as orders continue growing in such a way that labor days and sales increase, with the result that, counting the recycling business, the monthly sales have reached 2 million yen. This allows sharing 80,000 Yen among all 9 staff and the 2 full-time supporters plus other part-timers like myself. Based on the experience and managerial skills acquired we are moving to the next step of how can we together create more possibilities of work so that we can build a fit environment for many more homeless people to have a job.

The Meaning of Working Together
AWN aims to become a Workers Collective Union. In other words, workers manage together the business, they are responsible for all the decisions taken at AWN. On the other hand, AWN only has pay staff. All receive the same salaries and there are no volunteers. At present, those working in the shop receive 3,000 yen a day, but if they work in the handy business the pay is 6,000 yen, not including transportation and food. When going to work there is a fixed share for all staff members, according to the working days. Now, in order to assist the concerned staff that lives only from AWN’s profits, there is a housing allowance for them.

Work together

Something that helped me was the fact that I was somehow liberated from my dilemma between my personal life and my activities. To stress one against the other brings always headaches to the persons concerned as well as to their supporters. If one tries to fill in a blank space of life with activities, there will always be limitations and the blank space will always remain such. The reason is simple. It is impossible to eat. Again, if the efforts are spent in assuring food, the activities will suffer a blank. But, it will be difficult to recognize that. One wants to assure that there is no blank in one’s activities. And as a result, one places an excessive identity on action. And since all the efforts go there, halfway volunteer action seems impertinent. One is inclined to say that life is not so sweet. Only oneself can understand the mood and the situation on which he stands as a person concerned. I have seen many persons entrapped in bad environments and I also went through such bad experiences. This is true of other homeless. They are busy to get food and a place to sleep, so that they could survive. On top of that, they participate in activities. I have heard hundred times, “if I get into action I cannot eat,” but when people get involved in action, some profitable results are expected.

I have also often seen persons of action that somehow enjoy special privileges. After all, it becomes a problem of social awareness, they say. You hear people say: “The situation of homeless people is serious, but why don’t they participate in the activities? How those especial privileges affect the situation of other homeless?” Nevertheless the root of the problem is physical and material, not a mental attitude.

This dilemma surrounding homeless and supporters became very demanding to me through the years. In reality, one becomes so busy by doing things that action swallows life and not only to make a living is near impossible, but the bad environment into which one has fallen unconsciously appears clearly. Nevertheless, when it comes to “working together,” such a dilemma blows off, facing the very simple fact that the activities as well as the work aim at earning a living. We can say with no pretense whatsoever that, we will do our best to be able to have enough food. This way, anybody would accept any kind of little assistance.

One more good result, similar to what I have been saying, is that in AWN all staff members feel they are considered equal in all kinds of jobs. Before, I participated actively in the movement of homeless people, a movement totally constituted of those persons concerned, meaning that supporters were outsiders cooperating with them. But, in fact, the real promoters were the supporter of the movement. They wrote the leaflets, recruited the homeless, organized the movement and put together all opinions as the opinions representing the homeless concerned. Neither my role nor my stand as a supporter was never clear to me. Although I was sitting in front I could had also been sitting behind and that was a little confusing. Things are different now, because, by “working together” my stand becomes clear. All I do now is to work hard, performing my job in order to support AWN. I go ahead doing the things I am able to do well, and I learn from others those things I am not so good at. Tasks to perform at the site of work are rather simple and clear. Everybody does his job like cleaning the place, or transporting things, loading them. We do it naturally and the tasks shared follow everybody’s strong and weak points. The reason for that is simple: this is the smoothest and most efficient way to perform a task with limited personnel. This is not the job of “somebody,” but the site work of all of us.

The Falcon in the Micro Cosmos
I talked of “results,” meaning basically the liberation from a probable dilemma that arises from a limited space and Micro Cosmos, and it could be also called equality. The members of AWN, all together, are 16 people. Besides them, there are others living near AWN who live by the Sumida River, about 1,000 in all, from where most staff members come. Homeless in Tokyo number around 6,000. Although AWN might raise the income of its members and accumulate their skills and know how it will not affect the homeless in general. AWN has solved for itself the dilemma between “living” and “action,” but that is not the case with all the other homeless. At AWN everybody is equal concerning jobs, but inequality is common among all homeless people. We say working together, but the expression of “togetherness” is greatly limited to just a few persons. Maybe we should better refer to try to bring together all those homeless persons living nearby and to think of levels basically different from such activities. AWN is trying different ways to enlarge membership, but, after all, it comes to just about 20 more persons, what means that the majority of homeless people will remain outside, without any especial contact as before.

I, personally, feel that, at least at this moment, this should be enough and consequently my task now is to make that a reality.

I recall that during the 80’s, one of the keywords in use among citizens’ movements was, “global and local” and recently I think that “space building” is a good slogan. Homeless people are a result of social structures and their increase is a terrible phenomenon nowadays. Practically nobody is astonished today at the rapid increase of unstable workers as a result of the dispatch of personnel from one company to other. Young people evicted from their apartments, are dispatched to several companies where they are registered but they sleep in coffee shops reading comics, always holding back at a borderline, in danger of being thrown into the streets. Middle age persons, still healthy, whose tasks have been changed or that were forced to give up their jobs, are working part time at night in First Food or Convenient shops. American intellectuals call this trend, “low level competition” and it is a sign, not only of economic poverty, but also of a difficult social insecurity. This is how society is reflected into my eyes.

Faced with this reality, I ask myself what could I do and, for the time being, I thought what about building up a fortress. Space building might be a better expression. Instead of holding on to jobs with daily or monthly payment that very easily on the spur of the moment might cease, we must accept ourselves and continue building with our own hands ‘space’ to work together. We can build gathering places, like coffee shops or bars where any time we happen to go we could meet with some acquaintances, no matter who are they. Or maybe living spaces with good neighbor links where we are not in danger of being soon evicted. We must build with our own hands spaces from where the evil forces of society will not swept us away. No matter how small those places would be, provided that they are basically common, let’s build them rapidly following our interests and talents. It doesn’t matter they are only 4 or 5. But, it is important that they cover all work and living within a network system. This is my dream.
The work of AWN is small. It is nothing more than a small-size enterprise. It could not become big, neither it could be a small business that wants to win in competitive society but without being able to do so. I want it to be a spot not to be defeated. I feel lately that alternatives and not to be defeated bear such a meaning.

Seeking Financial Cooperation for a New Enterprise
AWN has plans to buy land and a building in order to proceed on to next steps. A 4-story ferroconcrete building, with the attached 208 m2 piece of land that is in front of the actual shop we are renting now, could become the site of common work so that we could ourselves together support our own living. Our plan is to make it the center to meet each other, the center of our lives.

The shop is so small that we have to work outside

In a good familiarity relationship with the neighbors who come to the recycling shop and call our place, “a cheap candy store for adults,” the shop has established natural links with the customers who, only after visiting us several times, come to realize that the ones working there were homeless persons. Those working together conduct in common the sharing of their tasks, and device ways to cut on costs in order to squeeze out personnel expenses to be able to accept new companions. They don’t make the place a close institution, they sleep there, they relate to the neighborhood through the shop and the handyman business, and on basis of that they contact those that have started to live alone in the vicinity. The place will become the basis for network among organizations that cooperate to solve the problems of the homeless concerned by giving assistance in medical, legal, welfare and other different technical fields. Literally, the site is the center to “work together, to live together.”

The price of land and building will be about 60 million Yen. (But, since it is a public auction sale, unless the Court publicizes the sale it would be impossible to know the exact bidding price). We already have 40 million Yen and, at present, we have started to collect the left 20 million by borrowing. The borrowing will be done through 2 different shares: 1 share of 1 million Yen or a share of 100,000 Yen. Since the public bidding is expected to take place in July, there is little time left. In case you were thinking to invest we will send you detailed information, and if the need arises we are ready to meet with you personally to explain the whole program.

Address to get directly in touch with us: AWN
2-14-19 Higashi Nippori, Arakawa-ku, Tokyo 116-0014
Tel & Fax: 03-5604-0873 or 080-3022-4422
E-mail: myuasa@k2.dion.ne.jp or pmshimo@aa.mbn.or.jp

The movement of homeless people is at a turning point as a result of advancing restructuring. We need cooperators to clear the way to start new endeavors.
(29 May 2004)

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