Hidden behind the power lines and a political party banner live 108 families; approximately 600 people fighting the ravages of poverty. The building is the old Phnom Penh movie theatre, not used for screenings since the Khmer Rouge left town – a drama of a different kind is now being played out.
Four floors house this poor community. Parts of the building are among the worse living conditions imaginable. Bats and rats share their home in this darkened labyrinth of tiny cubicles and open rooms where families do the everyday things of life; cook, eat, wash and sleep. Walking through inch deep water, air thick with soot, and being led through body width walkways by torchlight, most telling was one visitor’s description of the setting as ‘like a scene from the end of the world’.
Sadly, there are approximately 10,000 people living in environments similar to these across Phnom Penh. Why do the poor choose to live in places like these? Firstly disused buildings provide shelter, of sorts. Secondly, the real estate mantra location, location, location rings true all over the world – cities afford opportunity for work. Thirdly, social capital is the glue that holds these broken lives together – the poor might not prosper materially but they know the value of ‘sticking together’.