Teens Living on Streets Turn to Theft for Survival

Outside a pharmacy near Phsar Ta Pang in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district, a sign warns pa­trons not to leave their belongings un­attended on their motorcycles—there have been many thefts in the area.

Barefoot, emaciated teenage boys roam outside the shops and street-side food stalls, occasionally snatching items left in the bask­ets of parked motorcycles.

“There’s one now,” said a wo­man behind a shop counter, quickly ducking so that the boy would not see her.

Vendors say the problem has been going on for years, with gangs of boys, usually 14 to 25 years old, stealing helmets, raincoats and other belongings from the parked motorcycles.

The local police have given vendors the phone number of undercover police officers to call when they see such thefts occur. But it hasn’t done much good.

“I’m afraid to tell my customers when it is happening,” said one ven­­­dor. Once a boy picked up a rock and threatened to throw it at her when she had warned a customer he was being robbed, she said.

“I do not tell police because then they will know I did it.”

For Thy Pich, there was little choice but to become a street kid when, at 12 years old, he and a friend arrived in Phnom Penh from the Thai border. He used to steal, but he gave it up two years ago after being arrested, he said.

Now the 19-year-old guards cars for the “rich people” who come and shop at Phsar Ta Pang. Some days he can make as much as $3. But he still sleeps in an alley nearby the market, and there are days when he goes without food.

Pointing to his friend sleeping next to him on a pile of rubble he said, “See him? He is sick, he has not eaten anything all day.”

Thy Pich said he has been trying to stay off drugs for the last two months, hoping to be taken in at an outreach center, and dreaming of having a real job one day, maybe as an electronics repairman.

“Here on the street no one cares about us. When we die, we die like dogs,”  he said.

Young boys often find themselves living on the street when they leave their families to move to Phnom Penh, said Guillaume Re­zeau, a volunteer and communications person for the NGO Krou­sar Thmey.

“They think that, with the tour­ists, they can make money easily and send it back to their parents,” Rezeau said. “But then they realize that it’s not that easy, and many of them spend their money on drugs, games and alcohol.”

The longer they have been on the streets, the harder it is to help them, he said.

“They’re used to being free in the streets, and [at Krousar Thmey centers] there are rules that they’re not used to—they have to shower, study, things like that,” he said.

Thai Vary, 16, lives on the streets. He steals from parked mo­torcycles, selling safety helmets for about $7. “I use the money to buy drugs—I don’t eat very often,” he said.

Hy Prou, Phnom Penh’s deputy police commissioner in charge of social order, said the police have tried to control thefts at Ta Pang market. The municipality is also building a center to house and “educate” street children, he said.

Pin Sokhom, the chief of outreach for the NGO Friends/Mith Samlan, said about 70 percent of boys like Thai Vary have drug problems—a major obstacle in bringing them into care since they have to give up drugs and comply with the center’s treatment program to be admitted.

Both Pin Sokhom and Rezeau said people should not give street children money.

“Some of them can earn $10 a day on the street. Why study when they can earn more money than their parents?” Rezeau said.

If people want to help, they should give street children food, making sure they eat what is given and not allow them the opportunity to sell it later, he added.


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