Canada's rent subsidies to Haiti's homeless (Toronto Star)

Haiti’s $500 question: Canada offers rent subsidy to Haiti’s homeless

By Catherine Porter, Toronto Star Columnist
Published in the World Weekly section of the Toronto Star, Aug 12, 2012
(See also an accompanying editorial by the Toronto Star. )

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI—Samuel Jean Bazile sits on a broken plastic chair by the broken door of his very broken hut, looking forlornly at the view. It is a nicer view than last month, when his makeshift home was surrounded by hundreds of others, all crudely erected with plastic and metal and garbage, such as the fridge doors propping up the back of his shack. This morning, he can see a

playground in the distance, benches, a crew of cleaners in government T-shirts sweeping garbage into wheelbarrows and fellow Haitians strolling through the park like it was just that--a park--and not the lawless maze of decrepitude and despair it has been these past two-and-a-half years.

Before the 7.0-magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, the Champs de Mars was Port-au-Prince’s High Park and Nathan Phillips Square combined. A cluster of leafy public squares nestled against the National Palace, it was where locals came to relax, eat ice cream and ride their bikes. Students from the nearby public university studied under the street lamps at night. During the winter carnival, parades and musicians — notably, current President Michel Martelly — played before throbbing crowds.

But the earthquake transformed the Champs de Mars into the city’s most visible and often most dangerous refugee camp. Gangs moved in, bringing weapons, drugs, rape. Residents peed into sandwich bags inside their huts at night, for fear of attack en route to a porta-potty.

The 5,000 families who lived here became resignedly familiar with the sauna of summer under their tarps, the rivers that seeped under their beds during the rainy season, as well as the sting of rubber bullets and tear gas, regularly unleashed by police. It seemed they’d never leave. As the months marched on, their slumping huts became the face of the country’s stalled recovery.

Finally, the depressing spell has been broken. The park is being reclaimed by the government as a public space, using Canadian dollars.

The last of Bazile’s neighbours packed up weeks earlier and moved to rental apartments in nearby slums. Bazile’s hut is one of only a handful left. (It would be torn down a week later.)

His problem: the $500 the Canadian government is offering as a rent subsidy isn’t enough. “They don’t want us to move into broken houses, but those are the only ones I can find with two bedrooms,” says Bazile, 26.

Before the earthquake, he worked as a logistics manager. Since the earthquake, he has survived off his girlfriend’s beautician skills. He wants the second room for a beauty parlour, “so we could make enough money for next year’s rent.”

After years of waiting, Bazile is grateful his government is finally moving his family out of the camp. But years of waiting must be worth more than a one-room apartment in a squalid slum, where life is almost as hard and as dangerous as it has been here. “I don’t want to just move,” Bazile says. “I want to move to a better situation.”

First there were tarps , followed by tents. Then came the plywood one-room huts, called “T-shelters,” since they were meant to be temporary. These were the solutions offered by the swarm of humanitarian groups that descended upon Haiti after the earthquake left 1.5 million people homeless.

The goal was always to build new homes and repair others, preferably in less congested, planned neighbourhoods that wouldn’t cascade atop of one another during another possible earthquake or certain hurricane. But, by January 2012, two years after the earthquake, there were little signs of progress. Fewer than 5,200 new homes had been built and only 13,800 repaired, according to a United Nations report. Some 516,000 people still lived in refugee camps like the Champs de Mars.

Around the same time, the mayor of the upper-class suburb of Petionville began bribing the refugees settling in the city’s biggest square to simply get out. Human rights groups and humanitarian organizations slammed her, but President Martelly’s team jumped on the idea as the solution to the refugee problem.

They perfected the concept — offering each family a $500 rent subsidy to be given directly to their prospective landlord. They called their plan 16/6 — after the six highly visible camps they planned to clear and the 16 city slums they intended to renovate as former residents moved back in.

The money, not surprisingly, didn’t arrive. (Less than half of the promised $12 billion in international aid has materialized, and of that only 10 per cent went to the Haitian government, according to the United Nations Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti.)

Martelly’s team received less than half the $79 million they had asked for. But Canada’s foreign aid agency CIDA offered $20 million to clear the Champs de Mars of its 30,000 residents.

“Nobody thought we’d be able to take people out of those squares. People at the World Bank were taking bets on how we’d fail,” says Keke Belizaire, the director of the 16/6 program.

Ten minutes off a plane in Port-au-Prince, you can see the results. Where once a sprawling camp shouldered the airport, there is now grass. A few minutes away, the statues of Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines gaze down over the cleared Champs de Mars. And, up in Petionville, children now play on monkey bars, rather than live below them.

There were no violent riots, as predicted. The truth is most people desperately wanted to leave. Can you imagine two years of camping in a squalid parking lot?

The 16/6 program treats refugees like adults who can find their own place and negotiate their rent. After years of being infantilized by aid, people appreciate that. “This is a project that’s doing well,” Belizaire says. “This is not theory. This is for real. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

To see the 16/6 plan at its best, Belizaire sent me to Morne Hercule, the first of eight slums his team is working to rebuild. (The Canadian cash wasn’t enough to salvage the whole 16/6 plan, so the number of renovations was cut in half.)

Like most of the bidonvilles in Port-au-Prince, Morne Hercule clings to the side of a hill. From the distance, its little concrete box houses look like the scales on a fish, they are so tightly packed. To get to most houses, you must walk down labyrinthine alleys. This is why so many people died in the city on Jan. 12 — there was no open space to run to. More than half the houses in the area were destroyed, locals say.

“To have power, first you need the will,” says Marie Josette Damice, a local mother of four who just moved back to Morne Hercule after almost two years living under a tarp in that Petionville park. “They go hand-in-hand.”

Damice is a community activist, advising the government on the planned improvements to her neighbourhood — a new road, water reservoirs, some solar lamps.

She leads me to the construction site: more than 50 people working on paving the new road, climbing up and down the hill with buckets of water on their heads, shovelling out concrete and smoothing it into place. Each is making $7.14 a day — almost double the country’s minimum wage, she says.

The 16/6 project also provides business management courses for women and construction material vendors, according to Belizaire. Amateur masons can upgrade their skills and receive a university diploma. The plan for new houses, though, is modest. In total, only 1,000 new houses will be built in eight neighbourhoods by the 16/6 program.

At the end of my tour, Damice walks me to her new home, a two-bedroom apartment she rents on the ground floor of a house. It’s small, but clean and safe.

Across the street, there is a row of 12 shacks, pieced together with tin and scrap wood. These are the internal refugees, locals who lost their homes but stayed nearby rather than fleeing to a big refugee camp. What is going to happen to them, I ask? “There is no plan for them,” Damice says.

Most of Bazile’s former neighbours moved to apartments closer to the Champs de Mars. Many ended up in Fort National, a slum 10 minutes from the Palace perched on another hill. Even more people died here on Jan. 12 than in Morne Hercule. According to a USAID report, 80 per cent of the buildings were damaged beyond repair.

I spent two mornings walking around Fort National, investigating what a $500 rent subsidy would get. A sign greeted me from the main road, tacked to the side of a tin shed: Une Chambre a Maisson a Affermer. Room for Rent. I called the number. A man named Nobert led me through a warren of narrow alleys to the bottom floor of a big concrete house. The room was like a prison cell: three metres by three metres, one window with no glass, a wire dangling from the ceiling with no light bulb.

Like most apartments in the slums, there was no stove or running water. Nobert took me back up the hill to the shared privy — a hole in the ground of a shed. For this, he was charging $375 (U.S.) for the year. “I’m renting eight other apartments already,” he said, “all of them to the IOM.”

The IOM is the International Organization of Migration, a UN sister agency that has been overseeing most of the camp moves for the Haitian government. Their procedure is to send two staff people to approve the chosen apartment before paying the landlord. If the family chooses an apartment that costs less than $500 for the year, they keep the change. And, if the IOM finds them still there two months later, they get another $150. The goal is to keep people out of the camps, regardless of where they move, although staff are meant to reject apartments that seem unsafe.

After a few minutes twisting through alleys, I push through a rusted gate into the yard for four one-room houses, two poured concrete, two wooden. The concrete ones are hopelessly broken — the wall of one blown out, the roof of the other hanging down in pieces like giant concrete icicles. A 22-year-old woman named Rene Neslene greets me. Her orange summer dress clings to her looming belly. She is five months pregnant.

“Before the earthquake, we lived in that house,” she says, pointing to one of the concrete boxes. “Now, we live here.” Here is a one-room wooden hut that looks more backyard fort than house: its blue walls are made of hundreds of stubby wooden boards crudely banged together. Inside is one single bed, one chair, one bedside table with a television and one metal stand holding dishware. Three people live here — her mother, her sister and Neslene, who sleeps on the bed. Their rent? $125 a year.

Neslene explains how her mother duped the IOM, getting them to pay $500 for another apartment, and then moving here instead. The landlord gave her the money, which she used to restart her little business, selling eggs and bread in the market.

Neslene’s mother is smart. Chances are she’ll be able to pay next year’s rent too. But what of the other transplanted refugees? I met many who had used up all $500 for an apartment, with no plan to raise next year’s rent.

“We are concerned that after one year, people will be back homeless again,” says Nicole Phillips, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

Then, their poverty will be hidden.

The tents on the Champs de Mars were a visible reminder of the terrible earthquake and its consequences for the world. Without the tents, will donors remember the destitute of Haiti?

“This doesn’t solve all the economic problems, that’s absolutely true,” says Dominique Rossetti, Canada’s former head of aid in Haiti. “It gives people oxygen. They will find work. It’s not easy, but give them a chance. They are not lazy people.”

An internal Red Cross report from June supports Rossetti: a year after giving refugees in seven small camps a year’s worth of rental subsidies, 56 per cent had renewed their leases and another 36 per cent had found other homes. Only 8 per cent were unaccounted for.

As for Fort National, the former government of René Préval unveiled an ambitious plan to rebuild it, replacing the warren of lanes and slapdash concrete homes with broad palm-tree-lined roads and three-level apartment buildings, not too different from the plans Belizaire shows me of new apartments planned for Morne Hercule. But the 16/6 group scrapped it, since it would have meant emptying the entire neighbourhood, Belizaire says.

His team will renovate one of two neighbourhoods many Champs de Mars refugees moved back into, he says. He’s just not sure which one. Money is tight and donors are fatigued. “We have a lot of people who moved back to Fort National,” he says. “It’s a tough decision.”

Meanwhile, the Canadian Embassy arranged landscaping for the Champs de Mars for late July’s carnival of flowers. It was first public event in the square since the earthquake. Thousands of people danced over three days in the very spot Bazile and his neighbours lived.

The theme was “Se la pou la” — the place to be.