The Urgency of Housing in Haiti

"Everything we owned got smashed. We lost everything."

Nelio was not referring to the devastating earthquake of January 12.
The unemployed, 24-year-old Haitian was speaking about losing his home
a second time in three months, on this occasion due to the government.
Since late March, armed Haitian police have been closing camps and
destroying the shelters that quake victims created out of whatever
supplies they could scavenge, from cardboard to small strips of tin.
U.N. troops sometimes aid in the evictions.

The expulsions and renewed homelessness come at a time of growing urgency for permanent,
sturdy housing, with water, utilities, and sewer, where people can
stabilize their lives and rebuild community. "Decent housing" is
protected by both the Haitian constitution and the U.N. International
Declaration of Human Rights.

government officials and international aid agencies have revealed no
plan to meet these needs or fulfill these rights of the 1.3 million
left displaced - one in nine citizens. Instead, rare public statements evidence conflicting strategies for limited, temporary initiatives.

In the
aftermath of the earthquake, government officials spoke of moving
people to well-planned camps in advance of the rainy season. In March,
officials suggested that people should resume residence in their former
homes, many of which they said were still habitable. (Survivors, some
of whom watched the walls of their cracked houses lean more with each
major aftershock, demurred.) The government's official
reconstruction plan, presented to international donors in March,
asserts that it will set up temporary shelters in five locales which
will become long-term housing "with sustainable infrastructure and
basic services," but gives little detail of how this is to happen. The
government has apparently acquired land to house 100,000 people, but
some of it is far from jobs, schools, health care, and food markets, as
well as family and community.

International agencies speak of constructing 130,000 "semi-permanent" shelters, some of which will
have walls made of tarps. Some international agencies suggest that
Haitians will convert their transitional houses into permanent ones,
through such additions as chicken wire and plaster. Monetary resources
and material aid are in critically short supply among earthquake
survivors, and it is not apparent how they will come by such
construction materials. Some have not even found their first tent after
a three-and-a-half month search, and remain sleeping on sidewalks and
in cars.

Hurricane season
begins June 1. This month, a Miami branch chief of the National
Hurricane Center said that early signs suggest the 2010 season will be
"busy." One factor is warm water, and waters in the tropical Atlantic
are at their warmest in recorded history. A second factor is that El
Nino, which disrupts hurricane formation, is likely to dissipate this

Four storms that
hit Haiti in three weeks in 2008 killed 793 people and left more than
310 missing, according to Haitian government figures.

Homeless Twice in Three Months

the earthquake killed Nelio's father and destroyed the family's home in
Carrefour Feuilles, Nelio spent weeks trying to obtain a tarp or tent
for his family to live in. His hopes rose and fell with various
promises of agencies and friends. Finally, a foreign photographer whom
he had befriended gave him money, and he bought a tent, plus wood and a
tarp for a second structure to house his family. The nine members
include a child as young as 15 months and his 57-year-old mother. They
took up residence in the Sylvio Cator soccer stadium along with about
7,000 other people.

On April 9 or 10
(Nelio was unsure, and press accounts differ), Nelio said that "the
director of the camp told us that the next day everyone had to leave
the field." The owner had allegedly demanded the stadium back so that
the soccer teams could recommence their practices and games there.
"They said they were going to give every family 1000 gourde (US$24.84)
and a little three-person tent. The next morning, they started throwing
people out. When it happened, I had already left, and my mother had
gone out to look for another place to live. People organized a
demonstration to demand the aid they promised us.

"When that
happened, they sent in CIMO [anti-riot squads] to crush our houses and
beat us with sticks as though we were dogs. By the time my mother and I
got back, they had already destroyed our little house. One CIMO officer
beat me on the head, cutting it open. He beat me on the chest and the
back, he pushed me, he pulled his machine gun on me. People were
shouting for help. My mother was crying. I told her to relax," Nelio

Nelio reported
that at least some of those were present when the eviction started were
given small tents. Neither his family nor many others got new housing
supplies or assistance in relocating. His family has had to separate.
Nelio is living in another internally displaced people's camp, while
other family members are dispersed across town.

Few Options for Those Evicted

Similar expulsions have occurred at a handful of other sites, and more are threatened.
As schools begin to reopen throughout Port-au-Prince, residents of some
of the 79 camps on school grounds have been evicted.

parents and MINUSTAH [the U.N. mission] say that the families have to
leave. We understand that, but where are they going to go? They have to
give us some alternative," said Micheline Sainvilus, an
unemployed mother of six children who has been living in a cluster of
tents filling a small street close to the center of town. Her own
children are not in school because they lost their uniforms when their
house collapsed.

The U.N.
mission announced that the Haitian government declared a moratorium on
forced evictions on April 22, but the government itself has remained

In April,
the government opened a large camp called Corail Cesselesse near the
town of Croix-des-Bouquets, just under an hour's drive from downtown
Port-au-Prince. Three thousand people have already been relocated there
from other camps, and 3,000 more are supposed to join them in the long
rows of white tents on white gravel, with no trees or other shade.
"It's a desert, nothing but sand. What are they supposed to do in the
sun in the middle of the day?" Nelio asked.

of the camp in the Champs de Mars park have been hearing rumors for
weeks that they will be forced to evacuate and move to Corail, but they
claim no one has told them anything definitive about their fate.
"Croix-des-Bouquets? I don't know anyone there. How will I work? Where
will my kids go to school?" said one woman from her open-air residence
under a tarp. "I hear that it costs 100 gourdes ($2.48) to take the bus
there," said another. That is more money than most homeless survivors
see in days.

The government has opened a second tent settlement, and several others are under development. Josette
Perard, director of the Haiti office of the Lambi Fund, said, "The
Haitian people are rebellious. If they don't want to be there, they
won't stay."

Uncertainty and Anger over the Future

Most who lost their homes in the earthquake were renters,
and have no way to reclaim either their former lodging or the rent
which they typically pay in six-month installments. Of those who own
their home, several reported in interviews, their land is now buried in
rubble and they have no money to pay to clear it so that they erect a
shelter. Port-au-Prince is an extremely densely packed city with little
open land. Those who choose not to stay in one of the new settlements
may be forced to reconstruct substandard houses on steep hillsides and
ravines - exactly what caused such a high toll in the recent earthquake.

Anger is
growing among the displaced and their allies, with demonstrations
following suit. The Support Group for the Repatriated and Refugees
(GARR, by its French acronym) is one of many to denounce the action,
releasing a statement on April 28 calling on the Haitian government to
"assume its leadership in caring for the displaced," in accordance with
the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement by the U.N. Office for
Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Those principles include the following (excerpted):

  • National authorities
    have the primary duty and responsibility to provide protection and
    humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons;
  • All internally displaced persons have the right to an adequate standard of living;

  • Authorities
    shall provide internally displaced persons with food and potable water,
    basic shelter and clothing; essential medical services and sanitation;
  • Authorities concerned shall ensure [that] displaced children receive education which shall be free.

From the camp where he now lives, this time in the Champs
de Mars park beside the decimated National Palace, Getro Nelio said,
"I've been abandoned without any help. The Haitian state isn't doing
anything for anyone. I have nothing. I just sit here with my two arms

Sources: Research for this article was conducted
through live and telephone interviews over the past six weeks. Addition
information was gained from: Charles Arthur, "Earthquake Victims Face
New Trials with Forced Evictions," NotiCen, April 29, 2010; Ken
Ellingwood, "Three months after the earthquake, schools and businesses
want their land back,"
Los Angeles Times, April 29,
2010; AlterPresse, "L'expert independent de l'ONU se les droits humains
souhaite un moratoire se les expulsions de presonnes deplaceees," April
30, 2010; Frank Bajak, "Transitional housing slowly getting built in
Haiti," Associated Press, April 30, 2010; and Christine dell'Amore,
"Hurricane Could Push Spilled Gulf Oil Into New Orleans," National
Geographic News, May 5, 2010.

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