Sympathy feeds drug habit in Ho Chi Minh City

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A young man in a group of beggars in Ho Chi Minh City that have been trained to act like paralyzed or mentally ill people, earning big money from people's sympathy to pay for their drug use and gambling

Some young drug and gambling addicts in Ho Chi Minh City do not have to rob or steal to fund their habit.

They just have to play mentally or physically ill handicapped people to earn hundreds of dollars by begging or selling lottery tickets, and several residents moved by their plight pay them extra money, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters found after days of investigation.

Most of the fraudulent beggars are healthy young men who have been trained to act like dysfunctional people.

A group of seven young men has been working for a lottery ticket retail agency in an alley on Nguyen Canh Chan Street, District 1.

Their employer, a husband and wife, had them trained by a man named Toan, around 24.

"I have been doing this for more than ten years and have turned dozens of strong young men into disabled people," Toan told the reporters who pretended to be seeking jobs as such beggars.

Equipment needed for the job is cheap - some old, dirty torn clothes - but the important thing is how to act like being paralyzed or affected by cerebral-palsy, he said.

"No matter how much people beat or shout at you, you have to lie still, don't stand up.

"When you drag yourself on the street, you don't have to smile. You just need to keep your mouth twisted and people will be moved.

"When people ask what impairment you have, you have to speak with difficulty with a deformed mouth. They will totally buy it if you can shed some tears.

"In the worst case, if you are caught by the police, keep pretending that you are dumb or deaf and I will bail you out," Toan said.

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He said his "students" can earn at least a hundred dollars a day, but some have landed big sums from rich people who want to engage in charity.

"Recently a Viet Kieu gave one of my students US$300. Some rich guys have given me dozens of wheelchairs. I took and sold them all," said Toan, who drove the beggars to their places every day, pretending to carry them down to the road.

The "students" said most people easily sympathize, but sometimes when that did not happen, they just had to make themselves look more pitiable.

"This job requires you to be patient, accept to be ashamed and filthy," said Diep, 19.

The beggar, with experience of five years, said the better one acts, the more money people will throw out.

"Sometimes you have to drag yourself across mud or garbage just to buy people's tears," he said.

The beggars said they have to work far from home as they do not want to get busted, and they also have a little self-respect, because they do not want familiar people to call them con-men.

Du, 16, from the south central province of Phu Yen, said he had to hide the job from his mother and relatives. Once, after she found out, he lied to her that he would quit, he said.

Most of the beggars came from this province more than 500 kilometers from the city.

Still not enough

Though their earnings put them in the high income group, the beggars do not find it enough to feed their methamphetamine habit.

Diep said: "I'd put all the money into the fun. Sometimes I have to borrow from the boss."

He earned at least VND1 million ($48) a day, and gets nearly $300 often, but now owes the boss around VND100 million ($480).

He said other "beggars" are also stuck in gambling, online games and prostitution.

Tuoi Tre found that trainer Toan has helped set up several similar groups in the city, including two on Huynh Man Dat Street in District 5 and Tran Dinh Xu Street in District 1.

Some real lottery ticket vendors have also switched to the "new model" after seeing it earn them a lot more money.

City plans beggar free districts

According to a 2009 decision by the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee, the municipal administration, people found begging on the streets are to be admitted to social welfare centers for at least three months before their relatives or guardian can get them out on bail.

The minimum time increases to six months for beggars being admitted to the centers for between the 2nd to 4th time, and to a year if they are admitted for fifth time and above.

In a plan announced August 2011, HCMC authorities targeted zero beggars and homeless people in the city by 2015.

Under the plan titled "Dealing with Wandering Beggars and the Homeless in HCMC," the city aims to have no beggars and homeless people in districts 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6, as well as Phu Nhuan, Binh Thanh and Tan Binh districts by 2013.

Le Chu Giang, head of the social support division in the social affairs department, said the plan, which will be carried out in other districts by 2015, includes sending the beggars and homeless to charity centers for education and vocational training and finding jobs for them.

The city authorities are expected to send beggars from other provinces back to their hometowns and coordinate with these localities to admit them to local charity centers, as well as take strict measures against people who force others to become beggars.

No official figures are available on the number of homeless people and beggars in HCMC. The municipal labor department has admitted 8,500 to charity centers between 2009 and 2010, including 900 who are officially registered residents of HCMC.

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