Thousands of internally displaced people live in cramped structures on smog-filled
medians between thickly trafficked highway lanes. Photo: Beverly Bell.
By Beverly Bell
“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 occupies even the most unlikely spots, such as median strips on highways and fields near former dumping grounds of dictators’ victims' 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, 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.”
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 Pétion-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 others' 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.
1 Brendan McCarthy, “Despite drop in crime, New Orleans' murder rate continues to lead nation,” Times-Picayune, June 1, 2009.
2 From Lois Romano, “State Department's Cheryl Mills on rebuilding Haiti,” Washington Post, May 20, 2010, p. A15, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/09/AR201005...