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The Urgency of Housing in Haiti

Source: Other Worlds Are Possible
By Beverly Bell

The 7.3 earthquake which struck Haiti on January 12 was only the start of Haiti’s most recent catastrophe. It has been followed by an ever-deepening social and economic crisis for those whose survival was precarious before the quake, especially among the 1.3 million who were left homeless or displaced.

For this group, who are now packed into camps or squeezed into the most marginal of open spaces, some daily elements of life include the following:

– Rape and other violence against women and girls, at high levels since the earthquake, appear to be rising;

– Poverty and social destabilization are worsening. They find no relief in an environment where people lack dignity, privacy, the fulfillment of basic needs, or control over their lives;

– The Haitian government has recently commenced violent evictions of internally displaced people from their camps, with a plan to relocate them in other vast and sometimes distant tent camps. Some survivors have now lost everything a second time, this time due to police smashing their belongings. Others live in fear that this will soon be their fate;

– While drenching, all-night rains have been a constant since the earthquake, the rainy season commences in earnest in June, with hurricane season just behind. In this context, the tarps, tents, and rickety housing which internally displaced peoples have scraped together become life-threatening.

All of these social crises require the same first redress: housing. Deeper structural solutions are imperative, especially if Haiti is to have a future based on justice and equity, but in the immediate, earthquake survivors must have permanent, sturdy, and dignified homes. These must offer water, electricity, sanitation, and proximity to services.

Instead, three and a half months after the earthquake, housing construction is almost absent among the initiatives of the Haitian government, aid agencies, and international donor community. Relief organizations are planning the construction of 130,000 ‘semi-permanent’ shelters, in which category they include homes made of plastic tarps, according to the Associated Press.[1] This would only marginally address the needs of only one-tenth of those now homeless. National attention is instead focused on moving survivors to new tents in a few, densely populated camps, introducing other extreme problems. (See part II of this article on May 6 for more detail.)

Housing is a guaranteed human right according to both the Haitian constitution and international conventions. The Haitian constitution declares, “The State recognizes the right of every citizen to decent housing.” The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including… housing.” The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement of the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs declares that “All internally displaced persons have the right to an adequate standard of living [with] safe access to… basic shelter and housing.”

Marie Paul, a now-unemployed street merchant who lives with her mother and two young children in the middle of a narrow street, explained, “If people’s rights were respected, we wouldn’t be living under these sheets today.”

Rising Rape and Violence

Members of the grassroots group Commission of Women Victim-to-Victim (KOFAVIV) tracked 230 rapes in 15 camps, or 15.3 incidents per camp, between the January 12 earthquake and March 21. This figure is based on the findings of a few camp-based outreach workers without any transportation, other research capacity, or sometimes even cell phones, so it surely reflects only a percentage of the actual figure. KOFAIV coordinator Marie Eramithe Delva said that the women’s and children’s rights group now comes across at least one case of rape each day, which she recognizes does not capture the true number. Other, more methodical tracking efforts by Haitian and international organizations are now underway.

Girls and women have the right to be free from rape wherever they are; the problem is not just where they live. However, the conditions of their current residence in internally displaced camps substantially heighten their risk. All are in densely packed and public spaces, while some live in shelters much less substantial than even a tent. Some women and girls are in plain view, under strung-up tarps or bedsheets with limited or no walls. In the absence of private space, females must often bathe outdoors within full sight of all. In camps with gender-segregated outhouses, men sometimes hide in dark women’s bathrooms at night, awaiting a victim. Without the ability to lock themselves in at night, often without male accompaniment, and in tight quarters with up to thousands of men, women and girls are easy prey.

Once they have been raped or attacked, they have nowhere to relocate to be secure from their assailant. In an extensive investigation over two weeks, this writer could find no women’s shelter in Port-au-Prince for survivors, except one that offers a three-day stay. If the survivors report the attacker, they are in even greater danger. Some women have fled town after reporting their rape to the police, for fear of retribution. Others have neither the bus fare to leave nor anywhere to relocate.

The vulnerability is aggravated by the fact that neither Haitian nor international police offer any measurable protection in the camps. In many interviews, women reported that they have never seen Haitian or U.N. security forces in their camps, notwithstanding U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s March 13 statement that the first priority of the U.N. is to protect women.[2]

Some camps have organized all-volunteer security brigades, usually of men, which can be a help. In other camps, women have complained in interviews, men join simply to be able to enter tents and steal with greater ease.

Delva and her family were subject to their third post-earthquake attack on April 26. Two men entered under their open tarp whose boundaries, in today’s reconfigured reality, signifies ‘home.’ By chance, members of the camp security brigade were in the area. While one of the intruders ran, brigade members caught the other and brought him to the police station. “We don’t know what happened to him then,” Delva said.

KOFAVIV co-coordinator Malya Villard Appolon reported that the group knows of only one case where a perpetrator was arrested, in a case which reveals some of the challenges to cracking down on the violence. In a mid-March attack against a woman who wanted her name withheld, two men entered her tent in Camp d’Application in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Martissant. They raped and beat her, inflicting her with a head wound. One of the men then escaped, while police arrested the other. The judge later threw out the case, stating that the doctor’s certificate did not contain the proper stamp, though this is not legally necessary. Relatives of the rapist told the survivor that they would come kill her. The woman went into hiding.

In one of many similar stories, a 15-year-old girl was gang-raped by five men in the last week of April, according to a delegation of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. With no father and a mother in great difficulty, the girl lives with a young friend in a tent in a camp.[3]

Women report living in constant fear for themselves and their daughters. One woman in a meeting of rape survivors in a downtown schoolyard recounted that she and others sleep with machetes under their beds for protection, while another woman said she tries to sleep lightly so she can stay alert to danger. In interviews, residents of several camps across Port-au-Prince said that they hear women being beaten almost every night.

The problem of gender-based violence, in Haiti as everywhere, requires deep solutions, including more effectively stigmatizing, prosecuting, and penalizing it. Haiti faces a further challenge of a weak justice system which is neither upholding laws or protecting citizens, especially vulnerable ones. For now, Haitian and international women’s groups are urging the U.N. and the national government to step up violence prevention measures, such as increasing security in the camps, providing private bathing areas, and providing gender sensitivity training to Haitian police.

As more females become victims, and as hurricane season approaches, the massive international plan to simply move homeless people from to other tent camps is as dangerous as it is nonsensical. It is also a human rights violation. “Do they think we’re animals?” asked one elder woman as she sat on a crate in the mud in front of her tent.

Female Haitians deserve to live out of sight and out of reach of would-be perpetrators, and to bathe, use the toilet, and sleep without terror. Housing will not end the problem of rape and other gender-based violence, but it is the first imperative through which women and girls can begin to protect themselves from harm’s way.

“Everything we owned got smashed. We lost everything.”

Getro 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.

Haitian 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 Niño, which disrupts hurricane formation, is likely to dissipate this season.

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

After 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 said.

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.

“The 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 quiet.

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.

Residents 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 crossed.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that, in the cases of the woman beaten and raped in the internally displaced people’s Camp d’Application and of the 15-year-old who was gang-raped, the crimes could not be prosecuted because neither survivor could produce the proper certificate – signed by a doctor within 72 hours of the attack – verifying their rapes. The stories are true. However, we have just learned that the rationale for throwing the cases out was false. In fact, as attorney Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti just brought to our attention, « there is no requirement in Haitian law that a medical exam be done within 72 hours, or even a requirement that there be any medical certificate. Lawyers, judges and police will claim there’s a requirement, but cannot point to it in any law book. The requirement is in fact a ‘tradition’ in Haitian judicial practice, and like many traditions needs to be challenged. Underlying the tradition is a belief that a woman’s testimony cannot be trusted, against a man’s, without expert corroboration (usually from a man). » That an untold number of survivors have lost their chance to prosecute due to a legally unnecessary burden of proof being demanded of them gives another insight into the tremendous difficulty of trying to obtain justice.

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 déplaceées,” 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.

1 Frank Bajak, “Transitional housing slowly getting built in Haiti,” Associated Press, April 30, 2010.

2 Joseph Guyler Delva and Marine Hass, “UN chief urges donors to keep Haiti funds flowing,” Reuters, March 14, 2010.

3 Blaine Bookey, “Nap Kenbe: Finding a Safe Space for Haiti’s Women, Part II,” .