Tourists flock to Sapporo in midwinter, while the city's homeless shiver in the brutal cold. During the latest long weekend, I spent one night with a group of volunteers who patrol the city every night to check in on vagrants on the streets in sub-zero temperatures.

"I could've died in that fire," said a man sitting on a bench in an underground mall at Sapporo Station, referring to a recent fire that killed 11 residents of a dormitory for people on welfare.

An avid newspaper reader, the man was familiar with the tragedy in great detail, from the cause of the fire to how the residents lived. The victims included seniors who used to live on the streets.

The volunteers' group, made up of Hokkaido University students and others, calls itself "Hokkaido no Rodo to Fukushi wo Kangaeru Kai" (Group to address Hokkaido's labor and welfare issues). Members bring handouts of bread and tea to the city's homeless, engaging them in casual conversation while urging them to get off the streets.

Of the 26 people I met on my night out, one was a 41-year-old man who said he was "toughing it out on the streets" for the first time this winter. He used to sleep in Internet cafes while he worked part-time or as a day laborer, until all job offers dried up.

Ever since, he has been able to stay warm in underground malls and public facilities until night, but the real challenge is the early morning hours.

"I'd freeze to death if I fell asleep, so I just keep walking until morning," he said. He seeks out arcades and all-night stores, but refrains from hanging around too long for fear of attracting the attention of store employees. And he stays well clear of food aisles, lest he comes under suspicion of shoplifting.

He waits for underground malls to open at 5:45 a.m., and heads to his usual spot every morning. "I can sleep on any chair because I'm totally exhausted by then," he said. "But I long for spring, when I'll be able to lie down on the streets."

The weather forecast for Feb. 13 is another frigid day, and heavy snow is expected along the Sea of Japan coast.

According to the latest government survey, Japan's current homeless population is 5,534, and their average age is over 60.

In Sapporo, they will have to survive another 60-plus nights until the spring thaw.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 13

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.