New York Times: Years after Haiti quake, safe housing is a dream for many

By Deborah Sontag, New York Times, page one, August 16, 2012

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Since the earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, a scrappy 12-year-old boy named Givenson Fanfan has been sleeping on the rock-hard floor of a tent pitched in a fetid camp dominated by a 50-foot tower of trash. He dreams of a bed. In a hillside community, Terilien Brice, a 63-year-old grievously injured in the earthquake, lives like a shut-in inside his condemned house, which was marked with a red tag that is supposed to mean "no entry," not no exit. He feels helpless.

Dieu Juste Saint Eloi, 68, in contrast, secured a one-room shelter with plastic sheeting for walls, but his clan of 12 squeezes into it. And it perches on a ledge above the ruins of his spacious home, into which his granddaughter keeps tumbling and breaking bones. Unexpectedly, though, his 29-year-old son, William Saint Eloi, hit the housing jackpot. Isolated all his life because he is deaf, he now has a new home and community because two can-do Christian charities have taken deaf disaster victims under wing.

Two and a half years after the earthquake, despite billions of dollars in reconstruction aid, the most obvious, pressing need - safe, stable housing for all displaced people - remains unmet. In what international officials term a protracted humanitarian crisis, hundreds of thousands remain in increasingly wretched tent camps. Tens of thousands inhabit dangerously damaged buildings. And countless others, evicted from camps and yards, have simply disappeared with their raggedy tarps and rusty sheet metal into the hills.

There are many visible signs of activity across the country now - public plazas cleared of lean-tos, state-of-the-art repairs in selected areas and housing developments under construction. Tens of thousands of Haitian families have found enduring solutions to their housing crises - by rebuilding themselves, by getting reconstruction assistance or by securing one of the relatively few new houses.

But to spend a week exploring the disaster zone is to discover striking disparities in living conditions, often glaringly juxtaposed: Givenson's dead-end camp adjacent to a quarter that is a beehive of construction; William Saint Eloi's good fortune next to his family's trials; a devastated community revitalized on one side of a ravine but not the other.

In the absence of an overarching housing policy, Haiti's shelter problem has been tackled unsystematically, in a way that has favored rural over urban victims and homeowners over renters because their needs were more easily met. Many families with the least resources have been neglected unless they happened to belong to a tent camp, neighborhood or vulnerable population targeted by a particular program.

"It's the project syndrome - one neighborhood gets incredible resources, the next is in total limbo, or one camp gets rental subsidies, the next gets nothing," said Maggie Stephenson, a senior technical adviser to U.N.-Habitat in Haiti. "We have to spread the remaining resources more equitably. Equity is essential, and so are durable solutions."

A World Bank document estimates that more than $400 million in "large-scale permanent solutions" - new houses, home repairs and infrastructure reconstruction - are planned, under way and in a few cases completed. To date, though, small-scale temporary solutions - transitional shelters, mostly in the countryside, and year-long rental subsidies in the city - have soaked up a lot of the shelter reconstruction budget.

One-room transitional shelters dominated the international effort initially. T-shelters, as they are called, were intended to move people out of the camps while permanent housing was being built. But they took much longer to erect and cost far more than anticipated: at least $500 million for 125,000 shelters not built to last, said Priscilla M. Phelps, housing adviser to the now-defunct Interim Haiti Recovery Commission.

"They are mainly made up of wood, and, in this climate, they will be eaten by termites and rot in three to five years," said H. Kit Miyamoto, a seismic engineer working in Haiti since the earthquake. "All the money spent on T-shelters will be melted away."

At the same time, while more than 200,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, international aid has led to an estimated 15,000 repairs and 5,700 new, permanent homes so far. Most of the new houses are outside greater Port-au-Prince, where it was easier to obtain land, and some have yet to be occupied.

A high-profile project of 400 new houses in Zoranje, for instance, is still largely empty five months after President Michel Martelly cut the ribbon on it. About 25 families - all of government workers - had moved in by the end of July; the rest were delayed because the complex had not yet been connected to water.

Mr. Martelly's focus has been on reclaiming six prominent public squares by relocating tent dwellers to rental apartments. Cash grants subsidize a year's rent only, and the relocation program, run by international groups, has been labor-intensive, with at least a third of its cost going to overhead. Some Haitians criticize the approach, now being used to clear some smaller camps, too, as sweeping the enormous homelessness problem from view and delaying its resolution.

But Giovanni Cassani, the coordinator of humanitarian camps in Haiti, said rental subsidies and temporary shelters, some far sturdier than others, were "definitely better than the camps."

"Anything is better than the camps," he said.

'Where will we end up?'

Etched into a hillside, Givenson's camp lies in an area called Golgotha, after the hilltop where Jesus was crucified - "a place of great suffering," one resident explained. Before the earthquake, Golgotha was the dump for the adjacent neighborhood, which was hit hard by the disaster.

"My house was crushed," Givenson said recently as he tossed a deflated soccer ball. He was home alone when the shaking started, but his father ran down the mountain to scoop him up and carry him to safety. His big toe was injured, he said, but that was it.

Givenson, his father and his father's girlfriend fled to the dump during the emergency. Two and a half years later they are still there, in the deteriorating camping tent his father purchased then. They are among the 390,000 Haitians in the 575 remaining camps; this does not include what humanitarian authorities say are the tens of thousands forcibly evicted from camps over the last two months who also remain homeless.

The camps are in abysmal condition, with many, like Givenson's, on sites at risk of landslides or flooding. Tents and tarps - "From the American people," many say - are tattered. There is one shower for every 1,200 people, and one functional latrine for every 77.

Asked where he went to the bathroom, Givenson scampered down a steep incline and urinated into a trash-filled ravine at the bottom, not bothering with the 10 flimsy outhouses that serve the 800 or so above.

Small for his age but self-assured, Givenson, unlike many adults in the camps, is not resigned to his fate. He demands answers. "I don't get it," he said. "Everything that's happening around here with the reconstruction, we can't seem to get a piece of it."  Givenson's former neighborhood bustles with masons as homeowners rebuild with international help. But Givenson's father, an ironworker, was a renter. For the moment, his family's fate is nobody's concern.

Leading the way to his tent, Givenson stepped deftly over feces and skinny dogs prostrate in the heat. He pushed open a rusty sheet-metal gate spray-painted "Radios fixed here" - "my little business," he said. He ushered visitors inside. A bare bulb dangled; it was sweltering.

"I don't like anything about it," he said of his tent. He described his dream house: It would have tables, chairs, a hutch and a yard. "I'd like the house to be strongly built in case there are tremors, and I would not like a concrete roof but one with metal in case there's an earthquake, so as not to have broken bones."

Givenson says he spends a lot of time in his tent singing. He and his friends have a band called Zobob and, the boy without a bed said, they are saving money for instruments. In a sweet, scratchy voice, Givenson sang a plaintive ballad that he wrote about Haitian misery after the earthquake and cholera epidemic. "When I look at this country of mine, which once was the pearl of the Antilles," he sang in Creole, "I think, Oh, good God, where will we end up?"

Living amid ruins

Next door in Villa Rosa, on a steep hill inaccessible to cars, Terilien Brice built his salmon-color house in stages, starting 35 years ago. The first story was small and shallow, the second deeper and wider and the third only an aspiration - rebar reaching for the sky - when the earthquake struck.

Mr. Brice felt his house spinning and ran but was pinned beneath tumbling concrete blocks. He was badly injured; "I'm paralyzed now," he said. But he could lift his thin legs and seemed to be describing a broader paralysis: he does not know what to do now. "I don't have the means to demolish the house," he said. "That's why I'm still living inside."

Greater Port-au-Prince is pocked with buildings that are half-standing, half-collapsed, including the National Palace, which one cynical aid worker described as "the beggar's stump," an enduring symbol of Haiti's need for help.

Nobody knows exactly how many are living inside such wreckage. A study for the United States Agency for International Development estimated that 65 percent of condemned properties had been reinhabited as of last year. And a year-long building inspection tagged about 80,000 houses red: beyond repair. "Red houses are truly dangerous," said Mr. Miyamoto, the engineer whose firm led the inspections. "There is supposed to be no entry."

After the earthquake, Mr. Brice and his wife spent months in a junked car behind a church while their grown children helped clear enough rubble for them to move back into one relatively intact room in their red-tagged house. They plastered the large cracks on the interior walls but left the gaping fissures on the exterior untouched.

Increasingly weak, Mr. Brice says he has not ventured outside since May. He urinates and defecates in plastic baggies, he said.

Outside his crumbling edifice, his neighborhood is being rebuilt by a Dutch charity, Cordaid, and other groups in an inventive collaboration with homeowners, who are empowered to choose the architectural design, buy the materials, hire the masons trained by the groups and oversee their personal projects. Many red-tagged houses like Mr. Brice's are either retrofitted or replaced with especially hardy shelters. But a fifth of the damaged homes' owners are not benefiting, because their houses would be too expensive or dangerous to repair safely or because they declined a shelter.

"There is a sadness that we are leaving out so many people," said Koen Wagenbuur of Cordaid. "Our money only goes so far." He said he did not have information about Mr. Brice's situation.

Beyond Villa Rosa, the repairs under way will reach a third of the 120,000 homes tagged yellow for "dangerous but with limited damage," Mr. Miyamoto said. Red-tagged houses, more difficult and expensive to tackle, nonetheless must be addressed as soon as possible, he said.

Mr. Brice said he needed help urgently: "Please," he said.

Aid vs. self-created solutions

North of greater Port-au-Prince, an internationally created compound called Corail Cesselesse sits beneath improvised settlements that Haitians themselves built in the surrounding foothills. The mood in the valley is far more downbeat, providing a glimpse into the limitations of aid efforts versus self-created solutions.

In the spring of 2010, international groups relocated more than a thousand displaced people to the barren, windswept area from a tent city considered dangerous. It was a well-intentioned relocation championed by the actor Sean Penn, whose humanitarian group managed the tent city. But some disaster experts consider it to have been a mistake, imposed on a group without options. "We did not decide to come here," Roland Bertrand, 30, said. "They decided for us."

Corail now has the largest installation of temporary shelters, and they are lined up regimentally in precise rows. From the hills above, the community looks like a jigsaw of tin roofs fitted tightly together on a bed of coarse gravel.

Many residents see the transitional shelters as little boxes in the desert: small, hot and, especially, remote. "There is nothing to do here: no activities, no work," Antoine Jean Mejne, a barber, said. "When they first moved us here, they had a cash-for-work program and we complained about the pay" - $5 a day. "But now all we have are the shelters. You can't eat a shelter."

Exeline Belcombe, an elegant 25-year-old who traverses the rock-strewed settlement in a gauzy turquoise skirt, high heels and blue eye shadow, helped persuade people to move there. She lived in a tent among them and served as a paid liaison between the community and Mr. Penn's group. Now, she said, she feels a little guilty and disappointed, too. "These are not real houses. Imagine seven or eight people, 10 to 12 people in a one-room shelter? It's not a life."

Laura Blank, spokeswoman for World Vision, the group that constructed the shelters and a school there, said, "Building permanent housing is not part of World Vision's general program objective." She added that the shelters were sturdier than the "lower-quality shelters built by other organizations" and could last up to a decade "if well maintained."

Ms. Belcombe doubts that, and she and her neighbors feel the impermanence of their situation like a hovering question mark. But for the moment, Ms. Belcombe said, she is determined to make Corail into a real place. She runs a beauty salon and a restaurant out of two adjoining shelters. She started a women's group (the Organization of Fearless Ladies), a library and a canteen that, with donated rice, offers hot meals for 35 cents. "We have to forge our own destiny," she said. She pointed to the homes that have sprouted, helter-skelter, in the scrubby foothills above. "That's what they are doing."

After the government claimed the land around Corail through eminent domain, about 50,000 displaced Haitians resettled themselves in the off-the-grid communities they named Canaan, Jerusalem and Obama. Some erected tents or shanties, but thousands have built homes without outside help.

"Out here, we depend on nobody but each other," Fabienor Chada, 43, said. "We owe nothing to foreigners and nothing to our government. We look only to God for aid, though a small loan or grant would come in handy."

Mr. Chada, a tailor, never moved his family to a tent camp and so never got counted as a potential beneficiary. He moved his family from one relative's house to another until he heard about Canaan. He said he paid a fee to "some men" for the hilltop he now "owns," by the Wild West logic of the frontier land.

He constructed a simple concrete-block house. He could not afford to buy iron to reinforce the concrete and could not figure out how to attach the tin roof more securely. He makes his living sewing school uniforms, not in the building trade, he said. So he could use some technical advice and a little cash to build a latrine where he already dug a hole. It would be nice, too, if the government acknowledged Canaan as a fact on the ground and extended electricity and water there, he said.

He, for one, feels he is forging a legacy: "When I die, I will have something to pass on to my daughter."

A new home

For the first time in six months, William Saint Eloi, was leaving the lush green countryside dotted with new, pastel-color houses to see the family he left behind in Port-au-Prince. With anticipation, he climbed the bald rock to his family's ruined house in late July. His 4-year-old niece spotted him: "Bébé!" she cried out.

Fortunately, Mr. Saint Eloi could not hear her. That "bébé" is the term used in Creole for a deaf person infuriates him, he had just said through a sign-language interpreter: "We are not babies!"

Immediately after the earthquake, some deaf Haitians grew concerned that others were lying beneath the rubble unable to cry out for help. Though many had previously lived in isolation in a society that often treated them as mentally disabled, they banded together - first for search and rescue, then for communal living, with 168 deaf families gathering in a single tent camp.

Mr. Saint Eloi, rarely in the company of others with whom he could communicate in sign language, joined them. It was the first time he had left his parents and eight siblings, a warm, loving clan. Little did he imagine that he would end up in a better place than them.

Enter the American missionaries. One group, The 410 Bridge, based in Georgia, was working with the deaf families who were soon facing eviction from a camp that was scheduled to be closed. The 410 Bridge had raised money to build them houses but could not find an affordable property with clear title.

The other group had land but limited funds. Mission of Hope, based in Florida, had leveraged 25 years of experience in Haiti into securing 100 government-owned acres in rural Leveque. It was building an idyllic, if remote, community and had the capacity to scale up, but its private donations only went so far.

Ms. Phelps, the shelter expert for the Haiti recovery commission, said Mission of Hope, with deep roots and a continuing commitment to their area, was one of few groups that had managed to build quickly and intelligently with low overhead. "They're not just plopping down housing and going away like others," she said.

Brad Johnson, the mission's president, said, "We're not one of the big groups that sit in Washington, D.C., and get the financing." He continued: "But we're managing to get it done for $6,000 a house. I don't understand, for all the money that came into Haiti, why there aren't houses everywhere."

The two groups found each other. Now nearly 300 simple houses have been constructed, about half for the deaf and half for the hearing. Each house has a small plot for cultivation. The deaf community's section has solar-powered lighting so people can communicate through sign language at night.

In February, Mr. Saint Eloi got the key to house No. 301, pale yellow with a covered veranda. He planted papaya saplings and plantain trees, aloe and lemon verbena. He arranged stones in a heart at the center of his garden.

Training to become the deaf community's pastor, he is enthusiastically learning to tell Bible stories with his elastic face and dancing hands. He has a new girlfriend, too, a woman who started a communal jewelry-making business using beads fashioned from newspaper and nail polish. "We are really happy here," he said. He rubbed his chest emphatically and smiled. "I don't ever want to go back to Port-au-Prince."

Except to visit. One by one, his relatives emerged to greet him, waving from their "terrace," a jagged, concrete cliff hanging over the rock pile that they do not have money to rebuild into a home.

Pushing aside the curtain that covers their shelter without a door, they ushered him into the one room that somehow sleeps 12. The shelter, which they said fills with water during storms, is dominated by a mahogany bed salvaged from their house, its broken frame bound together with string, "like a photocopy of the original," his mother said.

She beamed as he embraced her. "William has had a very hard life," she said. "He deserves a reward. Thank God that somebody in this family got help."

A version of this article appeared in print on August 16, 2012, on page A1 of the New York City edition with the headline: 'Years After Haiti Quake, Safe Housing Is Dream for Multitudes.'