Haiti: Homeless, with an uncertain future

Friday, June 18, 2010

By Maria Halava

The devastating Haiti earthquake that led to 1.9 million people losing their homes forced most into around 1400 temporary settlements in Port-au-Prince and other areas. Some settled in any open space they could find – private land, schools or football stadiums - makeshift settlements where international standards for temporary housing are unknown. Or they stayed with families and relatives waiting for other solutions. However, now thousands have been evicted from these sites without any viable alternative. Forced evictions have been a much spoken topic in Haiti recently.

In Gressier, southwest of the capital, 600 families were evicted late May from the local school yard where they had been living since the earthquake. The school wanted to resume classes. Almost half the evicted families now stay in the camp of Shekina, a piece of land a few kilometres from their homes between the road and the ocean where ACT Alliance member the Lutheran World Federation has erected tents for 270 families, only a very temporary arrangement.

Within two or three months, these people will be moved to the new area near their homes, as promised by the mayor of Gressier. The new area will be safer, have semi-permanent housing which doesn’t expose residents to high risk rain, wind and flooding.

In the camps, people have organized themselves and taken the responsibility for their life in the camps. "Camp committees are taking responsibility for the functioning of the camp. It is of utmost importance that they themselves get involved and take action. Our role as a camp manager is only to support them in their work,” Sheyla Marie Durandisse, LWF emergency coordinator says.

Responsibility lies with Government

Collette Lespinasse, coordinator of an ACT partner, says the Haitian Government has responsibility to resettle people but its resettlement strategy comes too late, she says. The first three months were crucial.

According to Lespinasse, the Government is not offering real alternatives. "If people are to move back to their homes they need help clearing the rubble. If they go to the host families they (hosts) need support,” she says.

Since the start of the rainy and hurricane seasons, the need to move people from emergency shelters to transitional shelters with more durable structures has become urgent. However, progress is slow. The biggest challenges for resettlement are lack of available land, confusion over land ownership and the fact land is still blocked by debris. When people move to new areas they need services. “Offering children free schooling can, for example, affect the willingness to move. People will also need jobs and for the moment better shelters,” she says.

Politics certainly has its role to play, too. Because most Haitians were tenants before the earthquake, few have their own place to return to. According to Lespinasse, the Government should now address land issues. "We need political decisions and these need to be taken by the Government, not the international community. The international community has knowledge and experience, but it cannot take the responsibility that belongs to the Haitian Government.”

Haitians need to be included in reconstruction

Lack of available land is the concern of people living in Nerette camp in Petion Ville, a Port-au-Prince suburb. The local authorities have been unable to come up with solutions for people whose homes around the camp were damaged or destroyed. Yet people there have been told to leave within a short time period.

”If we had the possibility, we would have left the camp already,” Rosenez Stephane, mother of two children says. The family of four used to live in a house next to the camp, but the earthquake damaged the house. ”We haven’t got any help clearing the rubble from our home, only the streets have been cleaned. I hope we would have been involved in the cleaning work or that we could have at least borrowed the tools to do it ourselves,” she points out.

When it comes to reconstructing the country, Haitians feel both ignored and excluded. Many don’t have any information about what is happening now or in the future.

Homeless but not hopeless

Still five months after the earthquake, the future of hundreds of thousands of Haitians is bleak. Heavy rains have already started flushing the soil, leaving everything covered everything in mud. Tents and tarps let the rain through, soaking people and destroying their belongings. The hurricane season will utterly stretch the durability of shelter material to their limits.

People who fled the capital after the earthquake are now coming back to find jobs and to seek ways to make a living in Port-au-Prince. The pressure to survive is high. Lespinasse urges the government to use what resources it has, and to create a clear resettlement strategy. ”The Government also needs to start listening to the Haitians. They cannot be excluded from the reconstruction of the country,” she says. For the moment, the options for Haitian people are scarce. ”If we are evicted from the camp, we can only go back home even though it is damaged,” Stephane from Nerette camp says.

The family is living under threat of eviction with an uncertain future. Nearly homeless, they still haven’t lost their hope. "We are alive, so there is hope,” Stephane says.

Haiti: after the earthquake