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Kobe Cuts Off Free Food, Centers for Quake Homeless

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seven months after a killer earthquake ravaged this city, Kobe’s government said Sunday that it is closing all 260 of its remaining refugee centers and cutting off free food for residents made homeless by January’s temblor.

About 7,600 people who still have not found housing were asked to vacate the centers, particularly at schools, where they have been living since the Jan. 17 quake. They were told to move either into 12 newly specified “waiting stations,” accept free temporary housing already offered by the city or find housing on their own.

City officials took no forceful action to evict refugees and plan no such moves, said Jun Nagata, the duty officer of Kobe’s earthquake countermeasure headquarters.

But the move underscored the problems that the Kobe and Hyogo prefecture governments face in carrying out a massive program to repair or replace more than $100-billion worth of property damaged in the 6.9-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 5,500 people.

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“The 10 days to the end of the month will be our last chance to have talks to persuade people to move out of schools before classes resume after the summer holidays,” Nagata said.

At the peak in late January, more than 310,000 people throughout Hyogo prefecture--220,000 of them in Kobe--jammed schools, gymnasiums and other public buildings seeking shelter and food.

Sojiro Kawamura, who heads two grass-roots refugee groups, condemned the city government for creating “a new great disaster” in abandoning the many families who are expected to remain on school grounds despite Sunday’s order.

Kawamura, whose family lost its apartment in the earthquake, acknowledged that some refugees have refused to accept free temporary housing units from the city. But he said that the rejections have come from families with five or six members who can’t live in the tiny 270-square-foot prefabricated units, or from families who found commuting distances too long.

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Nagata, the city official, said temporary housing units built in Kobe’s West and North wards have proven to be the most unpopular. “But it’s only a 30-minute subway ride to the West Ward, and you can get to the North Ward by subway in an hour,” he said.

The North Ward is on the other side of the Rokko Mountains, which form a backdrop to the major business and residential sections of this port city of 1.5 million.

Nagata said the city would be able to provide new temporary shelters to about 2,000 people in 12 “waiting stations” in public halls, but said no additional temporary housing units will be built. Throughout the prefecture, about 48,000 prefab housing units have been built--33,000 of them in Kobe--and distributed through a series of lottery drawings to families left homeless by the earthquake.

The 20 towns and cities devastated by the earthquake reportedly spent about $1.7 billion to run the refugee centers, provide food and build the prefabricated housing units. The closing of Kobe’s refugee centers leaves only Nishinomiya still providing such assistance, but that city plans to end its aid next Sunday.

Nagata said the city has asked people who cannot afford to pay for their own food to apply for welfare assistance. Kawamura said volunteers working with his groups plan to visit refugees today and distribute packages of instant noodle mix to those who need food.

Most of the people still in the refugee camps are poor, and nearly all of them were living in rented homes or apartments that landlords decided not to rebuild after the quake.

Kieko Kose, 58, was typical of those left behind.

She said she and her husband, Hiromi, had lived in a rented apartment in a small building that was damaged beyond repair in the earthquake.

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“The owner was living on a pension, and banks won’t give him a loan to rebuild the apartment building. So he is planning to tear it down and turn the land into a parking lot,” she said.

“There are no apartments for rent anywhere in Kobe, and even if there were, we couldn’t afford the deposit,” which would be the equivalent of $8,000 for a two-room, 342-square-foot apartment renting for $800 a month, Hiromi Kose added. Deposits are refundable when renters move out.

Kieko Kose said she and her husband would be delighted to move into a two-room housing unit but that, so far, the city has offered the couple only a one-room apartment that she described as “fit only for a cat.”

At one school playground, truck driver Toshiji Honda, 48, constructed an elaborate four-tent makeshift home for 19 members of his extended family.

Ten relatives were able to find housing and have moved out, but Honda said that his family and a brother’s family will remain at the playground.

“I have no intention of moving,” Honda said. “It’s only a 10-minute drive from here to my company.”


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