Twelve-year-old Narong and his uncle left Svay Rieng province two years ago to find work. But when they arrived at the taxi stand at Phsar Olympic, the uncle disappeared, leaving Narong alone.
These days Narong scavenges for rubbish on the streets of Phnom Penh, a painfully thin figure in shorts and a dirty white shirt. Some days, he says, he can earn enough to eat. Some days he cannot.
“Today I earned only 500 riel since the morning to buy food,” Narong said Tuesday as he sat inside Wat Phnom to escape the sun with a few friends. “Look at me, the sweat is pouring down my body, and I haven’t made enough for lunch.”
Narong’s friends call him “Black Boy” because of his dark skin. They stick together as best they can. “I sleep under awnings, in houses, wherever I can. But I am happy with my life, though some gangsters have threatened me to take my money.”
What would Narong think about a home where he would have enough food to eat?
“I would be very glad, but I am afraid that when I was there, I would lose my freedom,” he said. He worried he would be forced to stay at the home, or forced to work hard by the home’s managers.
It’s children like Narong that the city will try to convince to stay at a home planned by Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara. NGOs that work with street children are applauding the city’s efforts but are warning that it must be carefully planned.
Chea Sophara this week said the proposed home, called “My Chance,” would be built in Anlong Kngan village, Khmuonh commune, Russei Keo district, about 15 km north of central Phnom Penh.
The commune has been a resettlement area for squatters left homeless by slum fires at Tonle Bassac and Chbar Ampou communes. The home would cost about $200,000, he said.
The city would buy three hectares of land in the commune for $45,000, said the governor, who said the plan should be approved within the next month. Students at the home will be taught skills that will allow them to get steady jobs, he said.
“Street children cannot become thieves if they are in the center,” the governor said at a workshop on street children sponsored by the city on Tuesday. Officials have said they worry about the numbers of children living away from home all or some of the time.
Loy Sophea, 16, a former street child now living at a home managed by the NGO Friends, said he was heartened by the plan. “I think I will be in a good position in the future, if the government encourages me. A new home will give us a bright future.”
But Sebastien Marot, director of Friends, warned that the currently planned location for the home may be too far away from the city. A distant location will leave kids feeling excluded from mainstream society, he said. “The kids are being very strong in saying we don’t want a center that’s too far away from the city. They say, we don’t want to be in a prison.”
City officials have been criticized for rounding up homeless people and dropping them off in random locations in the countryside. But they listened carefully on Tuesday as NGO and UN officials described how street children are often forced out of their homes by poverty, AIDS, physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse or trafficking. Keeping children off the streets will require addressing these root causes of homelessness, said Yoshiko Zenda, country representative of the UN Population Fund.
The workshop “showed clearly there is a will by the municipality to do something, which is very good overall,” Marot said. “Until recently they just wanted to do things fast. I think this workshop made it clear to the municipality that there are no quick fixes.”
(Additional reporting by Richard Sine)