Hope replaces fear for street dwellers

Pech Sotheary / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Vagrants detained at the notorious Prey Speu centre. KT/Mai Vireak

For the city’s homeless, Phnom Penh’s busy intersections, pagodas, markets and tourist sites are places of work, where many beg for money, and often lay their heads.

Others drag carts or bags around the capital, collecting recyclable waste and scrap materials to sell.

Oeur Phalla, 33, says poverty forced her to migrate from Kampong Speu province to Phnom Penh with her partner and five children.

Until recently, they lived on the street outside Toul Tom Pong pagoda. She and her partner collected scrap to sell, while their children begged for a living.

“The three big children had to beg. Sometimes, they could earn 30,000 to 40,000 riel ($7.50-$10) a day from begging. We parents would get 15,000 or 20,000 riel a day from scrap collecting, which was not enough for food,” she said.

The family lived outdoors come rain or shine, often ate unsanitary food, and were constantly trying to evade authorities who wanted to move them on or send them to a centre for homeless people. The children were also unable to go to school.

“Whenever we would rest outside a private property, we were asked to leave by the owners, and district authorities or social affairs officials would try to arrest us, so we were always running away,” she said.

Four months ago, that all changed. She and her family decided to stop living on the streets and return to their hometown in Kampong Speu.

The decision was made after they received advice from the NGO World Vision, in partnership with the Ministry of Social Affairs.

They were also given financial assistance from the charity, which provided funds to buy a motorised trailer to sell fruit and construct a small 4×5 metre house.

“We are no longer scared or trying to escape the authorities and our children can go to school. It is so much better than when we were living in Phnom Penh, being insulted by the public all the time,” Ms Phalla said.

Pov Rom, 52, had been living on the streets of the capital for a decade when she came into contact with World Vision.

She and her children used to collect recyclables on behalf of a scrap dealer. She recalls how a group of security guards once chased them and seized their carts.

“We were resting and having something to eat when suddenly a group of security guards drove up to us,” she said.

“We stopped eating, and tried to run away with our three carts, but they chased us and took them. The scrap dealer asked me to pay for the carts, which cost 200,000 riel ($50) each.”

The safety of her children was her biggest concern, particularly after her seven-year-old nephew was sexually abused by a foreigner.

World Vision project manager San Pharen. KT/Mai Vireak

World Vision officials worked with Ms Rom and her family on a twice weekly basis until they recently decided to return to their community in Kandal province.

The charity helped them purchase motorbike air pump equipment so they could start their own business.

With the combined income of the new business and some scrap trading in the village, the children are now able to go to school and the family is saving to buy a poultry farm.

Phnom Penh authorities recently began another crackdown on homelessness, with a particular focus on stopping people from using children to beg at traffic lights and finding out the root causes of why people are on the streets.

The Social Affairs Ministry has helped some homeless people reintegrate into communities, while partner organisations are working to provide skills training that will help them build a brighter future.

Others have been sent to social centres, including Prey Speu, which has long been criticised by civil society for failing to help Phnom Penh’s homeless population as it was intended.

In the first six months of this year, about 900 homeless, disabled and poor children who were begging in the capital were rounded up and sent to specialist residential centres to be cared for and receive an education, according to Phnom Penh Social Affairs Department director Sorn Sophal.

Touch Channy, director-general of the Ministry of Social Affairs technical department, said homeless people were being offered training on sewing, putting up wedding decorations, cutting hair, and repairing motorcycles, among other skills, for between three and six months.

However, he said some people rejected the support and continued to beg.

He warned that in the worst cases, these people exploited children, who were often not their own, by feeding them sleeping pills to provoke sympathy from members of the public.

“This is a difficult problem to deal with, but we are trying to solve it,” he said.

Mr Channy said ministry research indicated homeless people and poor children could earn 50,000 to 100,000 riel ($12.50-$25) per day begging, which made it hard to convince them to give it up.

The child victims of labour exploitation reported being subjected to threats and physical abuse.

Lun Maly was ordered by her parents to beg at traffic lights in Phnom Penh from the age of five. She lived in two residential centres for about three years, but her parents came and took her back to the streets, where they forced her to earn money for them until she was 17.

“I never went to school, I just slept at the corner of Sihanouk and Monivong Boulevard,” she said.

Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth previously said the government was working to improve residential centres for children and vulnerable adults, such as homeless people, trafficking victims and the mentally ill.

Prey Speu Centre in Phnom Penh provides nursing and rehabilitation services, as well as short-term professional assistance for the homeless.

However, a new mental illness treatment centre is being built in Kandal province’s Kandal Stueng district at a cost of $500,000 in a collaborative effort by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Phnom Penh City Hall and Kandal Provincial Hall.

World Vision project manager San Pharen said government efforts had decreased homelessness and the number of children begging on the streets in recent years.

The NGO has been working to assist the poor since 1993, helping 2,000 children to date and assisting homeless families through vocational training and help to set up businesses.

They also provide health services, psychological counselling and collaborate with the Ministry of Social Affairs to integrate people into communities or residential centres.

Mr Pharen urged the government to continue to working to solve homelessness and child begging, and to improve facilities at Prey Speu, to help homeless people get back on their feet.

He also said authorities must prioritise the safety of people in any crackdowns on homelessness, and called on the public not to give money to children on the streets, since it incentivised begging.

“When you give money, you cannot be sure it will go to the children. Sometimes the money goes to their parents, who may spend it on gambling or alcohol, and things that don’t benefit the children,” he said.

Ms Rom urged homeless people in the capital to consider returning to their home towns and starting their own businesses.

“Living in fear on the streets is no life,” she said.

“Now I have a business and can save money to buy jewellery and I have good relationships with many people. Most importantly, the future of my children looks bright.”

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