Global Policy Forum

In Haiti's Tent Cities, a Return to Normalcy is Unimaginable

Six months after the Haitian earthquake no one has been able to provide permanent shelter for the 1.5 million dispossessed. Emergency squatter shelter, established immediately following the earthquake, is becoming permanent housing, for lack of any better alternative. Inhabitants of these spontaneous ghettos live in desperate conditions where resources, basic services and food run short. The Haitian government, concerned that urban refugee camps could hinder long-term reconstruction, is slowly starting to decentralize some families into relocation camps. Yet these camps offer just another form of transitory shelter, where many Haitians face even greater challenges and further isolation.


By Fred Grimm

July 13, 2010

The concept of temporary, amid Haiti's teeming refugee camps, has morphed into a dismal variation of forever.

A deluge of earthquake victims, shocked and terrified, spilled out of the city's ruins after the disaster and found refuge in parks, school yards, soccer pitches, garden patches, almost any private or public space they could find in their tumbled down city.

Their flimsy tents, fabricated from bed sheets, tattered plastic, sticks and strings, reinforced the assumption that these impromptu settlements, 1,300 of them, would surely vanish before the summer rains could wash them away.

Six months later, the dispossessed remain, in transition to nowhere, with nowhere to go. With a million or so (no one really knows) still occupying what had been the city's open spaces, a return to normalcy has become unimaginable.

In the Champs de Mars, a once-compelling 42-acre network of parks and plazas with shaded lawns, a bandshell and amphitheater by the National Palace, the sprawl of bed sheet tents erected just after the Jan. 12 earthquake has evolved into a dense shanty settlement of crude but markedly more substantial dwellings. Thousands of quake survivors have fabricated little one-room shacks fashioned from lumber and corrugated metal salvaged from wrecked buildings with roofs of gray plastic tarps imprinted with ''From the American people.'' Lately, shanty dwellers have begun adding cement and rock footings around the base of their no-longer-so-temporary homes. And doors with locks.

Nelson Pierre, a one-time physics teacher, built his cottage-tent hybrid near the stylized statute of Haitian revolutionary hero Toussaint L'ouverture, with a glass window and a gable of wooden slats for ventilation. A poster featuring the periodic tables of chemical elements, recalling his life before the earthquake, share the wall with pictures of Jesus and fashion models. His home defies the notion of temporary.

Narrow passageways wind through the Champs de Mars' spontaneous ghetto, a place that has developed its own commerce, politics and vice along with shanties. At the wider places along these haphazard paths, cooks toil over charcoal fires, laundry dries on clothes lines, vendors hawk their wares. In one little opening, on a piece of plywood barely six feet long, Guilaine Pierre sold zucchini, carrots, corn meal, beans, eggplants, peppers, plantains, cooking oil, dried fish, flour, salami and Madam Gougousse brown rice.

Other vendors claimed the better locations along the street curbs, selling sundries and rice, flour and corn meal that had first come into camp as relief supplies from international humanitarian organizations. Fredes Batus, 46, sought me out to complain that the self-appointed boss of his plaza, controlled distribution of relief supplies, a means to build himself a political power base. ''He's stealing 70 percent of it,'' Batus said, bitterly. On a park wall, graffiti summed up the seething mood of Haiti's dispossessed in absurdist terms: ''Welcome back JC Duvalier'' for the long-exiled, famously brutal dictator, Jean-Claude Baby Doc Duvalier.

Carlos Jean Charles, 29, in a T-shirt emblazoned with an American flag and the face of country singer George Strait, spoke darkly of other commerce that has taken hold. Charles, who sleeps with his wife and three children in a seven-foot-long corrugated metal and scrap wood hovel barely wide enough to hold a single twin-bed mattress, said some families were so desperate that they offered up their children, some as young as 10, as prostitutes. Charles talked about criminal gangs vying for control of their shanty town. He grabbed a 16-year-old kid, Michel Mirat, who had run afoul of a gang known as the Reds, and pulled back his shirt and pants to reveal three not-quite-healed bullet wounds.

In another opening amid the maze of shacks, a cluster of small boys, no more than 12, sat in a circle smoking marijuana. Five young orphans were building their own little shanty out of boards and sticks.

Around a turn, neighbors lined up to fill plastic buckets with water from a large undulating orange bladder, imprinted with Action Contre la Faim. Fresh water, latrines, medical needs -- the stuff needed to fend off an epidemic -- come from non-government organizations. And they also illustrate the great dilemma facing post-earthquake Port-au-Prince. The NGOs, acting in the stead of a weak government, fend off disease and starvation in these squalid camps. But even the most rudimentary services, in a stricken place like Port-au-Prince, have the perverse effect of sustaining the new, spontaneous slums that are stifling the city's recovery.

The Haitian government has been talking for months about relocating the people of Champs de Mars in planned relocation camps outside of town. No one I talked to inside the camp professed any faith that an overwhelmed and irresolute bureaucracy could accomplish such a logistical feat.

''We could be here next year, the year after that, the year after that,'' said Jourdain Ernso, 18. ''We wouldn't like this camp to be permanent. This should be a public place but we have no place else to go.''

Twelve miles north of Port-au-Prince, on a treeless, sun-bleached gravel plain called Corail Cesselesse, some 1,300 families were moved off a Port-au-Prince golf course in April and into an official, sanctioned relocation camp. Each family has been assigned a white semi-cylindrical tunnel tent, arranged in long orderly rows, reminiscent of Quonset huts on a 1940s military base. NGOs have built showers and latrines, provided potable water, medical services. Save The Children has erected a large tent to house a school this fall. But Camp Manager Richard Poole of the American Refugee Committee said food supplies have been limited by a government worried about nurturing a dependency culture.

The camp is isolated, with very few vendors. One of the few, Meloude Charles, 30, had led a mule out of the mountains with a load of charcoal to sell in the camp. And there's little prospect in this area for employment other than earn $4.50 a day the NGOs pay men who dig drainage ditches around the camp. Nothing grows in this gravel field, much less a garden. ''People are hungry,'' said the frustrated Poole.

With hunger comes conspiracy theories. Rumors fly through the camp that the NGOs, in league with the government, have stolen food money. Such talk, so far, has spawned four food riots. ''The people were very, very angry,'' Poole said. ''It was very scary.''

Over the next few months, supposedly, these 5,000 refugees will be moved out of tents and into plywood huts. Not permanent housing, mind you. Just a higher grade of temporary. But temporary has become as meaningless a concept in Corail Cesselesse as in the Champs de Mars.

Over the last three months, unauthorized squatter camps have sprouted on land around Corail Cesselesse and on the slopes of Goat Mountain, looming in the background. Estimates indicate that as many as 40,000 people have pitched tents or built shanties to be near the services provided by the NGOs in the official camp.

Squatters, Poole said ruefully, are even selling plots of land out there for $250 each. No matter that they're selling someone else's private property. ''More and more are showing up out there every week,'' he said. ''We're going to be dwarfed by squatter camp.''

Corail Cesselesse looks to be the small orderly center (residents of the official camp wanted Booth to build a razor wire fence to keep out the unruly masses) surrounded by a unplanned anarchic slum.

''I've seen this happen after the earthquakes in Lima and Mexico City,'' Poole said.

In Corail Cesselesse, the notion of temporary has evolved into a permanent squatter city.

Back in Port Au Prince, a kind of perpetual weariness afflicts Brother Milo Frederique, priest and lower school principal of what, before the earthquake, had been considered the finest boys school in Haiti. Lately, Frederique contends with finding the money to rebuild ruined school buildings, scheduling classes for 1,500 kids in 16 tents, dealing with a financial crisis caused by so many parents who can no longer pay tuition.

And all those squatters -- his other problem. Some 6,000 refugees now live in the mahogany grove on the 15-acre Institution Saint Louis de Gonzague campus.

''Because the government knows that education is important . . .'' Frederique hopes that the refugees will be moved away, into more appropriate housing. He said that they'll probably be gone by August, before the next school term. Or September. His voice trailed off. ''Maybe by October,'' he said, wistfully, with more hope than conviction.

The homeless colony at Saint Louis de Gonzague again illustrates the peculiar conundrum of the effort to bring Haiti back. Back to what? Haiti's poor were in such utterly desperate shape before the earthquake that ''temporary'' makeshift housing and refugee camps, however unpalatable to outsiders, can actually represent an upgrade in their standard of living.

Lifranc Herold, the secretary general of a self-governing committee elected by the Saint Louis evacuees, said that the NGOs provide the colony clean water, medicine, food rations -- something out of reach for most of them before the disaster. Then Doctors Without Borders provided them with expensive family-sized tents, pitched in the shade of tall mahoganies. Herold said that many of the people had been renting shoddy little rooms before the earthquake. Besides, rents have since gone up. ''Some of these people are living better now than before,'' he said.

Even if they had some place to go back to, why would they? he asked.

Of course, most of the St. Louis interlopers could be persuaded with money or food or real jobs to move out of the city into relocation camps. Except most of these camps are only proposals, vague plans, foundering somewhere within Haiti's inscrutable bureaucracy.

Haiti's dispossessed, meanwhile, know that escape from their temporary ghettos will be a long time coming.


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