By Jody Hanson
The street was quiet. Almost deserted. There were only a couple of young women and kids under the tree at the usual spot.
Street 108 in Phnom Penh in the Kingdom of Cambodia is a strange mixture. Fronting on the Tonlee Sapp river – which morphs into the Mekong – it begins with the night market on the right and then moves on to a bunch of shops on the left selling cheap goods.
Across the street is a sort-of park with trees and concrete benches donated by a local bank. This is where the homeless people live. They sit or lie lethargically on their bamboo mats. Until, that is, the police approach on foot or motorcycle. Then they quickly roll up the mats and throw them onto the curb. A mat means habitation and it is illegal in the Kingdom, even through there are hundreds – more likely thousands – of homeless people in the capital.
They live by begging, stealing or making a bit of money delivering goods or directing motorists who can’t drive to park their cars along the street. It is a truly hand-to-mouth existence as they don’t even have any pots and pans or anywhere to cook.
Shortly after I moved to Phnom Penh in January of 2012, I got to know a family that lives under a tree. Lin – the mother – is about 35, but looks much older. Tivan is eight, his sister Tivin is six, Jivi is three and Sivi is 18 months. Tran – the father and a waste of oxygen – died about six months ago and, subsequently, Lin has gone into a depression.
From time to time I visit and give them rice and egg and milk for the kids. Any money that Lin got from the tourists who wandered around the area – and Sivi was a pathetic looking baby and a cash spinner – would be beaten away from her by Tran and end up as beer or glue.
It was Christmas – not that any of the homeless people knew or cared – so I went there with the idea of doing the usual food, but adding fruit for the festive occasion.
We got out of the tuk-tuk and through Nick – my driver and translator – I asked where everyone was. The women said that the police had done a raid about a week or so ago. As many people as could scattered in all directions. Lin had taken the children to her sister’s in the provinces.
Translated that meant Lin was desperate. I’d once taken her and the kids to her sister’s when Tran was being particularly violent and beating her on a regular basis. It was a hovel in the bush and her sister was one of the most demanding and offensive people I’ve ever met. We had taken rice, fish and soy sauce to make Lin’s return easier. The sister wanted me to buy bikes so the kids could go to school and to fix her roof.
After about a week, Lin and the kids had made their way back to Phnom Penh. When Nick told me I shrugged and said I wasn’t surprised. He asked how I knew and I replied that I used to live on isolated Indian reservations in northern Canada. Poverty and desperation follow similar patterns the world over.
Andrew and Nick went to get the food across the street while Constance and I went to the market for apples and oranges – imported and exotic here. Then we sat and watched while everyone ate their Christmas lunch. The women said the children were full and that they would give them the fruit later. Perhaps they got it; more likely it was sold.
One woman had a baby with a sore bottom so we went to the pharmacy to get wipes to clean the area and cream to help with the rash. The pharmacist commented, “You are so kind to Cambodian people.” I just smiled back at her. It takes so little, really.
How to Help?
After two years I don’t have any answers. Tivan and Tivin went to an NGO school briefly. The organization said they were going to house the family and educate the parents. That didn’t go anywhere. The average wage in Cambodia is about $100 a month. In terms of food and not having to work six days, they would prefer to stay under the tree.
Put the kids in an orphanage? A very bad idea as most of them are scams.
Give money? Another hopeless suggestion, as mentioned earlier. Involve the NGO’s? Most of them are useless and do very little on-the-ground work that counts.
It has to be a holistic social plan that gives people hope and shows them that there is a better way. But, alas, without massive effort, I don’t even know where to suggest to begin.
The only advice I can offer is that if you give food and milk, stick around to make sure it gets eaten.
And if you want to volunteer, do your research. A good grass-roots non-profit that runs out of Phnom Penh is CHOICE — http://choice-cambodia.org/blog/tag/volunteer-in-cambodia/ – that works with three villages. Another organization that helps street kids is Tiny Toones — http://www.tinytoones.org/about-tiny-toones/
Jody Hanson is an insufferable travel junkie who has visit 107 countries – 67 on her own – lived in nine and holds passports in three. She has visited all the countries in North, Central and South America except for Venezuela, Guyana, Surname and French Guinea. She wrote this article on behalf of Tucan Travel who offer all types of travel excursions to Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia.
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