E very night, they can be seen sleeping in parks, around pagodas, or wherever on the
streets they can find a place to lay their heads. Elizabeth Moorthy talks
to some of Phnom Penh's homeless, who live in an inner-city park, and asks what help
there is for those with nowhere to call home.
"If I go back, what do I do to earn a living?" asks Yun Saran, a 42-year-old
rice farmer from Prey Veng. Her current residence, shared by dozens of other homeless
people, is underneath a large bodhi tree in a Phnom Penh park.
"We came here two months ago," she says. "There was drought and flood
this year, and our rice crop is totally destroyed."
No rice harvest means no employment and no food on the table in impoverished, rural
Prey Veng. So Saran packed up her family and came to Phnom Penh in search of work.
She and her husband can earn 5,000 and 7,000 riels per day, respectively, in construction
- when they can find work.
"There has been much less construction work after the fighting in July,"
says Run Son, 35, also from Prey Veng. "Before, I used to work seven days a
week, but now I only work a few days in one week." Run Son has been living under
the tree for seven or eight months now, along with her parents and children. The
three generations find life difficult.
"My father is old, and it is hard for him to ride his cyclo very far. He earns
only five or six thousand riels per day," she says. "And my mother is old
too, and rarely works. She takes care of my children when I work."
Her naked three-year-old son has a runny nose and his legs are covered in sores from
mosquito bites. The swarms of flies that surround the tree community land on his
sores determinedly, though Run Son tries to shoo them away. Her pretty 10-year-old
daughter wears an old, stained school uniform. Run Son says the older kids used to
attend school in Prey Veng, but now she cannot afford to send them.
Adding to the troubles of the tree community is the constant fear of police swoops,
such as an October 15 drive to clear the riverside of homeless people. Although witnesses
said some people were hit with rifle butts, Chea San, chief of the municipal bureau
of social affairs, said: "We don't punish them, we really just want to help
them and keep order in the city." He said the recent operation netted 107 people,
who were taken to hospitals and shelters.
A police official admitted that they have orders from the municipal government to
keep the city clean and orderly. "We must keep public order, sometimes homeless
people make noise, harm the environment by pissing, interfere with monks at pagodas.
So we chase them away," said Chean Sovann, an official at the Khan Chamkar Mon
district police station.
Yun Saran says the police have come four times in the last two months. "They
chase us away and burn our belongings. Now I have only what I can take quickly: some
pots, a plastic sheet, a mat, rice, clothes."
The rest of the people under the tree have similarly meager possessions. Saran estimates
that 50 to 100 people sleep there every night, yet the tree shelters only a small
assortment of bags - from neat briefcases to plastic sacks - hung in the branches,
three hammocks, a few piles of pots, and a large jerrycan of water.
The tree community gets its water from nearby Wat Botum, where they also shelter
when it rains. Laundry drying on lines strung between shrubs or on frames improvised
from wood scraps testifies to the peoples' efforts to stay clean. Yun Saran is dressed
in a neat outfit, but she says her children are suffering from diarrhea. "We
seem to take turns getting ill," she says.
"We can use the toilets at the pagoda," says Long Sokhom, "or sometimes
just..." and he waves his hand in the direction of the grass just past the laundry
Sokhom is a 37-year-old amputee. "I used to be a soldier for Hun Sen, but I
stepped on a landmine. Now I am supposed to get money from the government, but not
very much, and I have not been paid for three months."
When he could walk, he peddled soybean sauce. But a second operation on his leg made
him unable to push his cart. Now he makes a living by begging in the market.
Although he admits spending almost all he makes on rice wine, he says since he cannot
work any longer, he is caught in a vicious circle. "If I do not drink, I do
not dare to beg. I feel ashamed when I am sober."
Yet there is recourse for Sokhom and the estimated 3,000 families on the streets:
the shelters and reintegration programs run by Phnom Penh NGOs. One such program,
Kolap 3, is run by the Taiwan Overseas Peace Service (TOPS) with support from Unicef
(the United Nations Children's Fund), the municipal government and the Ministry of
Social Welfare and Veterans' Affairs.
Lack of money prevents the government from running its own homeless programs, according
to Suy Sem, Secretary of State for Social Welfare. "The scale of such work is
too small, and the budget too small. We do it with NGOs who help us."
Kolap 3 takes in people like 36-year-old Sin Saroeun, who left his home in Prey Veng
when his house flooded and he couldn't get any work. "When I came to Phnom Penh,
I was living just in the market, doing odd jobs," he says. Kolap 3 counselors
regularly visit local markets and other places where the homeless congregate and
encourage them to come to the shelter.
Saroeun and about 200 others are in a six-month counseling and training program at
the shelter. They can choose what skills to learn, such as mat weaving, animal husbandry,
or sewing. They practice their skills at the center, and proceeds from what they
produce are shared among all the participants, according to Lay Chanthy, a literacy
teacher at the center. At the end of six months, the people return to their home
villages with some savings and their new skills.
The success rate of the two-year-old program is impressive. "We follow up on
those who go home," says the country director of TOPS, Shumei Hsu. "We
monitor them for one year. The rate of those who do not return to the streets is
Street people who do not have village homes can find recourse at another shelter,
run by Youth With A Mission's Hagar Project. This project takes in fatherless families,
giving them vocational training and education for up to six months, according to
Pierre Thami, the project director.
While many people return to their villages as in the Kolap 3 program, "some
of them are homeless and landless, so we went to the municipality and got land to
resettle people - we have an island, Koh Kor, 20km south of Phnom Penh. We prepared
it from scratch, put in water supplies, and now 28 families live there," he
The island of women and children is self-sufficient, cultivating rice and vegetables
and running a small sewing factory. "Group reintegration is much more successful"
than doing it one family at a time, says Thami of the island program.
Thami warns that reintegration must remain only an imperfect solution to the problem
of urban migration, given the lack of rural development and economic opportunities
in Cambodia. Nonetheless, participants in the programs are optimistic.
Kolap 3's Sin Saroeun says: "I can make use of the skills I'm learning, and
it is even better with some capital. I can go home and make a living. I'll start
a bicycle repair shop."
With the training he has received, Saroeun now has the hope and confidence to answer
Yun Saran's question of what there is to do other than struggle on Phnom Penh's streets.
Yet Yun Saran had the same chance - and turned it down.
She said "a Chinese group" had come and talked to the people under the
tree about coming to their shelter for six months, learning things, and going home.
"But nobody went. We thought it was a scam, it's too good to be true."