Citizen Mobilization for Housing in Haiti

"We're
mobilizing people in the camps and the shantytowns to let them know that
getting housing is a right. Our vision is to make the problem of
housing a focal point of people's struggle," said Reyneld Sanon of the
Force for Reflection and Action on Housing (FRAKKA by its Creole
acronym).

"We're
mobilizing people in the camps and the shantytowns to let them know that
getting housing is a right. Our vision is to make the problem of
housing a focal point of people's struggle," said Reyneld Sanon of the
Force for Reflection and Action on Housing (FRAKKA by its Creole
acronym).

Grassroots groups in Haiti are
developing strategies to respond to one of the greatest lingering crises
of many after the January 12 earthquake: homelessness for 1.9 million
people whose houses crumbled or were too damaged to occupy. FRAKKA
represents one initiative, though still fledgling, to unite grassroots
groups and residents of internally displaced people's camps to win their
human right to housing. (For another initiative by the Support Group
for the Repatriated and Refugees, see "The Right
to Housing in Haiti
.")

Dotting almost
every street and open space in Port-au-Prince, and stretching as far as
two hours' drive out of town, are 1,300 formally recognized camps and
many more unrecognized ones. Shelter for this nation of refugees occupy
even the most unlikely spots, such as median strips on highways and
fields near former dumping grounds of dictators' bodies. At times, camps
comprises no more than a few shaky lean-to's overtaking a sidewalk; at
other times, they cover vast terrain and contain tens of thousands of
survivors. The shelters are built with whatever people can find, from
cardboard boxes to Styrofoam trays, from plastic advertising banners to
strips of imitation Arabic rugs. They offer little to no protection from
the pounding night rains, thieves, or rapists.

Sanitary
conditions are all but nonexistent. Some offer no latrines at all, while
others provide putrid port-o-potties. Standard 'bathroom' procedure
involves plastic buckets which are then emptied in communal spaces. When
it is available at all, getting water with which to wash can involve
standing in a long line in the tropical sun. Flies, mosquitoes, and
other health risks are ubiquitous.

Loune Viaud,
the Haiti Operations Coordinator of Partners in Haiti, told me,
"Fortunately, we haven't had any of the epidemics we've all been
expecting. We've had a few cases of diphtheria, which are normally very
rare." She leaned over to knock on the wood of a window sill. When I
asked about a spike in post-earthquake HIV rates, she said, "We don't
yet know, but with all the rape and promiscuity in the camps, there's no
way there couldn't be."

Violence and physical
insecurity are endemic. The State Department renewed a travel advisory
after four Americans were killed in Haiti in three months (though almost
as many Americans, 3.6, are killed in a typical
week in my town of
New Orleans,[1] where the population is only about 5% of the island
nation's). Yet the violence primarily impacts those living in camps and
on the streets. The cause of the spike in crime can be found in the
proximity and vulnerability of victims, since everything the displaced
own is in their makeshift shelters, which have no locks or often even
walls. Surrounding families in the camps are as many as thousands of
strangers. Women's and girls' bodies are similarly unprotected and
easily accessed, aggravating high preexisting levels of gender-based
violence. The spike in crime can also be traced to growing poverty,
frustration, and alienation.

One unemployed woman
living in a tent in the shantytown of Carrefour told me, "On the street,
in the tent, there is no security. Only God."

In interview
after interview I've conducted over six months, people have regularly
cited the following priorities for their security: a functioning
national judicial system, responsive Haitian police, and fulfillment of
basic needs. (The responses do not include, notably, greater U.N.
'security', as those troops have been involved in many acts of violence
against the population. See "United
Nations Attacks Refugee Camp, Protests Mount
"). But more
than anything, they report, they want and need permanent, secure
housing.

Two months into hurricane season, no national
or international agency appears to have any plan; except for some
28,000 temporary shelters donated by aid agencies - usually just a
fancier tent - the only response has been to move Haitians from one tent
city to another. A rainstorm on July 12 provided just one indicator of
what might happen in the case of a hurricane. Ripping through camp
Corail, a bleak desert plain at the foot of a denuded mountain, hundreds
of tents were flattened. Corail is one of the few sites where the
government and international agencies took any action around internally
displaced people, relocating them form their home-made tents elsewhere
to commercial tents there.

Here's another example
of emergency preparedness. Amidst current conditions of desperation,
tents and other emergency supplies are being withheld and stockpiled for
a future
humanitarian
crisis - at least by international NGOs like Concern International, if
not the United Nations itself. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs, in its Weekly Facts and Messages for June 22,
wrote "Contingency planning: Plans for the hurricane season already in
place by the international response in Haiti include pre-positioning of
emergency supplies."

Over and over in my
conversations with camp residents, they ask, "Do they think we're
animals?"

The question can't be conclusively answered,
but some indicators reveal negligence at best, and high disdain at
worst. Food aid has been suspended since the end of March, except for
'food for work' programs whose benefits typically flow to friends and
family of insiders. Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive is reported to
have called for the closure of some camps. Forcible governmental removal
of residents from camps is on the upswing. The U.N. apparently tried
to negotiate a three-month moratorium on expulsions with the Haitian
government, but the government only held off for three weeks.

Cheryl Mills,
chief of staff for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said on
May 10, "We've been trying to incentivize people to return to their
homes, particularly if their homes have been adjudicated as safe. But
people seek to remain in the temporary communities because, as
surprising as that might seem outside of Haiti, life is better for many
of them now."[2]

It's hard to miss the parallel between
Mills' comment and that of former First Lady Barbara Bush when she
visited evacuees from New Orleans in the Houston Astrodome just after
Hurricane Katrina. "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is that
they all want to stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the
hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were
underprivileged anyway so this - this is working very well for them."

Mills'
statement is also akin to popular talk among some middle- and
upper-class Haitians, and U.N. and NGO employees of 'false victims.'
'False victims' are those whose lives weren't fully destroyed by the
earthquake and who therefore, apparently, should not be entitled to any
benefits. These are people who didn't lose their own houses but who go
hang out at the camps to get whatever aid might be distributed. As I've
heard it described in an upscale Petion-ville club and other places far
removed from the suffering, these 'false victims' are making out like
kings from the crisis.

What's the standard
for being a 'real' victim? That one lost everything but the clothes on
one's back? That one is a corpse still lying, flattened, in one of many
buildings across town that now serves as a mausoleum?

And what would
it mean if people's daily lives were so devastated that they had to go
to crowded, muddy, inhumane refugee camps for an upgrade?

Beyond Mills'
and other's insensitivity around the tremendous needs that all destitute
people in Haiti face today, she is flat wrong. Most cannot return home
for one of at least three reasons. First, the sites that held most of
the cement-block houses that were destroyed during the earthquake remain
covered in hills of rubble, so much that no tent can be erected there.
Hiring a crew to clear and cart away that rubble can cost upwards of
US$50, an impossible figure for most. Second, of those houses that are
left standing, many are seriously cracked or otherwise damaged. Third,
many families who were renters were kicked out by landlords immediately
after the earthquake.

"Aren't we all
Haitians? Is any one of us more a person than anyone else?" one former
street vendor inquired. She lost her husband, one-room home, all
belongings, and the merchandise through which she made her living in the
earthquake, and now lives with three children and a niece in a tent
made of four sapling trunks and a ripped blue plastic tarp.

"Since January
12, it's gotten so serious that we have to make this the focus of our
work. Even the Haitian Constitution, Article 22, says that the state has
an obligation to provide good housing to people," said Reyneld Sanon,
one of the coordinators of the aforementioned housing advocacy group
FRAKKA. Formed two months after the earthquake, FRAKKA is a coalition of
about thirty groups, including youth, community, workers' rights,
popular education, and children's right organizations, plus
organizations and leadership committees from camps. While the
coalition's size and strength are still humble, it is representative of a
new trend to organize around permanent lodging.

"We'll take
advantage of this moment to remind people that in 1985, Mexico had an
earthquake. People organized themselves and forced the state to get them
housing to live in," Sanon continued.

"The problem
of housing has always been there. If you look at the slums before
January 12, those weren't houses that anyone should have been living in.
As the proverb says in Haiti, 'These houses can fool the sun, but they
can't fool the rain.' And the problem isn't just in Port-au-Prince;
it's a national problem. Peasants need houses, too. If you travel
around the county, you can see the status of peasants' housing. You can
see that everyone in the country need better housing.

"People know
that we have a state that doesn't work for them. Generally, the state in
this country just works for a small sector who are sucking the people
dry, that's in the employ of the bourgeoisie. The people don't know
they have things like the right to free schooling and to health care,
and that the state has to give that to them, since they've never gotten
these things. But they've already paid for them with their taxes and
even with foreign loans, because it's the people who are going to pay
those back.

"One of the activities we did on May 1
was a training session with about 30 representatives of different
organizations. We gave them two documents, Article 25 of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights and Article 22 of the Constitution. We went
into the camps and did meetings with small groups and one-on-one to talk
to them about their rights.

"Then we're doing
consciousness-raising on the necessity for people to unify and fight for
housing. This leads us to mobilization, where people can take the
streets on a regular basis to get their needs met. Sit-ins, too: we
already have a calendar of days to do sit-ins in camps and shantytowns.

A press
release by FRAKKA from July 27 recognized that, "The definitive solution
to the problem of housing is tied to questions of decentralization,
management of the nation, and agrarian reform." I might add a commitment
by the government and international community to meet the needs of all.
But in the meantime, the statement reads, "We must mobilize... to demand
our rights to get good housing and quality of life."

Thanks to Mark
Schuller, Melinda Miles, and Nicole Phillips.

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