TOKYO (Reuters) - Kyoko Machiya should be enjoying life with grandchildren. Instead, the 64-year-old's home is a makeshift structure of boxes covered with blue plastic in a Tokyo park.
Homelessness in Japan is a decades-old issue, yet it has a worrying new twist. A vast majority of the homeless are now aging, a reflection of the overall graying of Japanese society that poses new problems for policy makers.
Machiya, a tiny woman with weathered skin and graying hair, tried a shelter once but eventually moved out.
"It's not their fault, but it's pretty difficult being surrounded by those with severe mental illnesses," Machiya said. "It wasn't a pleasant environment, so I ended up on the streets again."
Machiya's situation is, sadly, far from unusual.
The number of homeless in Japan has fallen sharply in nearly 5 years, to 9,576 in 2012 from 18,564 in 2007, according to Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare.
But those in higher age groups - 55 years old and above - have surged to 73.5 percent in 2012 from 58.8 percent in 2003.
Part of the problem is simple demographics, activists said - like the rest of Japan, the homeless are getting older.
By 2060, two out of every five people in Japan will be aged 65 or older, with the population falling by 30 percent to below 90 million - the fastest aging among developed countries.
"Although the number of elderly homeless may be increasing, the homeless population was generally in their 50s and 60s to begin with," said Daisuke Kuroiwa, a member of Nojiren, a homeless support group.
About 53% of those in the higher age groups have been homeless for at least 5 years or longer - people like Toshiyuki Ishioka, who lives in the same park as Machiya.
"The company I used to work for went bankrupt, so I've been living on the streets for eight years now," said the 50-year-old, whose tanned, leathery skin made him look older than his age. "It's also difficult for older people like me to find jobs because we're just not as strong."
With Japan's unemployment rate as a whole hovering around 4.2 percent, competition is much stiffer for the day labor jobs on which many of the homeless have long depended and for which strength is critical, activists said.
Though the government's report said that many of the homeless chose to live that way and were managing to scrape by with money made from recycling cans they scrounged out of the trash, people at the NGOs painted a darker picture.
"Even if people can find jobs, they're usually short term contractual jobs, and sometimes they're back on the streets after a year or so," said Mitsuo Nakamura, a member of Aun, Asia Worker's Network. "Most of those that get employed tend to be young, so the elderly have a clear disadvantage."
Many older homeless have just given up. According to the report, 63.7% said they aren't looking for jobs, and don't plan to in the future, with 40.2% of those not seeking jobs giving sickness and old age as the main reasons.
Officials at the Health Ministry stressed that they were working with local non-profit organizations to provide shelters and self-support centers that helped with employment.
But these programs often involve a substantial amount of red tape and are based on job-hunting programs for mainstream job applicants, activists complain.
"During the application process, you're required to give a substantial amount of background information - particularly why you're homeless - because they're usually suspicious," said Kazuaki Kasai, with Shinjuku Renraku Kai, a volunteer support group. "It's quite humiliating."
As for shelters, plans to build them provoke fierce neighborhood resistance. The government of Tokyo runs 5 support centers and shelters, with room for 385 people.
Many just opt out, activists said.
"The homeless aren't applying for them because the majority require shared housing which gives them no privacy, and they're given a time limit of 6 months to find a job or they get kicked out," Nakamura said.
"It's a pretty demanding process, especially for old people. Essentially it's a rat race."
The real picture is likely to be worse. Both the government report and NGOs say the drop in visible homeless numbers could actually be due to many vanishing from public parks and streets into places like 24-hour Internet cafes, where they sleep.
The hazards of being on the street are clear. A few weeks after Machiya spoke with Reuters, she had vanished from her home in the park - beaten and hospitalized, her fellow homeless said.
(Reporting by Teppei Kasai, editing by Elaine Lies)