Haitians still struggling three years after earthquake

01/09/2013 3:57 AM

01/09/2013 10:27 AM

The narrow corridor home deep inside the mountain was supposed to be a new beginning, a place where Alexandra Simin could have a fresh shot at life after nearly two years of sleeping on a dirt floor in a fetid tent city.

But 14 months after trading in her small tent for the one-room cinder block shack in the hillside slum called “Jalousie” or Jealousy, the mother of two and survivor of Haiti’s catastrophic Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake was again without a home.

“I always thought that after a year things would be easier; there would be jobs in the country and I could find work,” said Simin, 25, as she faced her second eviction in as many months.

“I really thought life would have gotten better.”

Three years after the monstrous 7.0 quake, and a year after the Haitian government, with help from the international community, began emptying the most visible tent cities and returning dwellers to neighborhoods, the number of displaced quake victims living on public plazas and roadways has dropped significantly.

But in a little-noticed consequence of the removals, many have been forced to return to the capital’s teeming slums. That’s a far cry from what the Haitian government and the international community, which has spent billions here, promised in the quake’s aftermath — to create jobs, build homes and construct a “new Haiti.”

The situation has caused some in the international community to question whether the focus should have been creating jobs rather than housing.

“You’re not going to get a nice housing estate even in a poor area by creating jobs because people will put up what they like and make decisions about how they use their money,’’ said Nigel Fisher, who heads the United Nation’s humanitarian operations in Haiti. “But in the end, at least, they are not being dependent. They are making their own decisions. I think that’s really important. It’s something we missed.”

In trying to rebuild, Simin and other former tent dwellers say stitching back their tattered lives is proving to be as elusive as the lofty promises. They say little has changed since the quake as poverty deepens, reconstruction stalls, political paralysis take root and cholera and chronic disasters become the norm.

“The country is becoming more and more difficult to live in,” said Simin, sitting outside a friend’s one-room home, where she sleeps on the floor with her two children. “We haven’t seen change. People have problems with food, problems with schools, problems with housing. Once you have a problem with finding a place to sleep, you just might as well just die. There’s no living.”

Simin and others say it’s clear that neither the government nor the international community had a plan for what would happen to them once they left the tent cities. Their growing sense of despair comes as the aid groups that flooded Haiti in the aftermath either cut programs or leave as funds dry up — and as half of the promised $5.3 billion in donor pledges remain outstanding.

Meanwhile, Haiti is facing even tougher economic times, according to a recent evaluation by the International Monetary Fund: rising food prices have helped increase inflation almost 2 percent since June to 6.8 percent; the forecast growth in gross domestic product, once projected at 7.8 percent, is now down to 2.5 percent because of the government’s slow execution of public projects; and a spring drought followed by two storms this hurricane season created more than $170 million in crop losses and put an additional 1.5 million Haitians in danger of hunger.

“In a sense, you are no longer talking about the earthquake, you are talking about poverty,” said Fisher, about the ongoing challenges being faced by those leaving the camps. “We are talking about the dearth of resources for taking on the transformation of a country, which has very poor infrastructure, which has most people living in poverty.”

“Even the people in the camps: Why are they there? It’s because they don’t have any alternatives. They don’t have jobs,” Fisher said. “This whole issue: Do you build houses or can you use that money to create jobs so that people can make their own choices, I’ve come more and more to think shouldn’t we be focusing on jobs?”

Before the quake, Pauline Louis and her husband Wilbert Jean-Louis scraped a living on his carpentry skills and her sidewalk sales of stylish, secondhand American clothes known as pepe. The money wasn’t much but it was just enough to keep a roof over their heads and care for Louis’ two children from a previous relationship.

These days, even pepe is hard to find.

“Some days you go downtown to buy the ‘pepe’ and you return just as you left — empty-handed,” said Louis, 37.

Even Jean-Louis’ hand-made wooden china cabinets and delicately crafted headboards, which sold before the quake, sit for months on a sidewalk along a busy Petionville street.

“There is no money in the streets; no activity. The country is broke,” he said one recent afternoon, carving a flower on a new headboard at the nameless sidewalk workshop.

For months, the couple have been struggling, trying to come up with the $325 to keep their tiny one-room apartment, also in the Jalousie slum, for another year. Initially, the owner asked $625 but Louis, a tough negotiator, got him to drop his price.

FROM TENT TO SLUM, A TRANSFER OF STRESS

The place isn’t much. There’s a small cooking area off the main room where the couple eat, sleep and receive visitors. The inside walls are painted pink; a wall unit, made by Jean-Louis, holds an old model 13-inch television and a few stuffed animals while another is stacked with ceramic dishes and cups. The couple’s twin bed doubles as a couch.

Jean-Louis’ 22-year-old brother, Gerald, and Louis’ 6-year-old cousin, Tracey, whom she recently took in after the girl’s parents died, also live with them — along with the family’s pet cat.

The living conditions are far different from tent living, Louis said. But with no steady income, and only the goodwill of her landlord keeping a roof over their heads, she wonders whether she would have been better with a job instead of the house.

“We were happy when [the International Organization for Migration] came to remove us. We were living under stress,” she said. “But what I see is that we’ve traded one stress for another stress.”

Francois Desruisseaux, IOM’s program manager for camp management, said surveys showed that while living in the camps, people considered shelter as their main priority. But after relocating to neighborhoods, shelter soon becomes a fourth priority. Finding a job, followed by food and education, become their top concerns.

While the average camp resident received $500 in rental subsidy, they also received an additional $150 for moving and other expenses to help them out.

“Considering many Haitians make barely $2 a day, this can represent close to five months’ salary for some,” Desruisseaux said. “We believe the rental subsidy is a much better situation than living in a camp and returning [homeless quake victims] to their pre-earthquake environment; in some cases in a better situation than they were prior to the earthquake.”

After IOM paid the $437 to her new landlord for a year’s rent, Simin invested the rest. She bought $37.50 in candy to resell in hopes of having money come in. She also paid $50 toward her daughters’, ages 5 and 8, school fees. But three months later, school administrators sent the girls home after she failed to come up with the remaining $275, Simin said. Days after Christmas, she hit rock bottom again: the friend and fellow quake victim whom she had temporarily moved in with was packing her things to move out on New Year’s Day after also being unable to renew her lease. “If she leaves, I have no choice but to also leave,” said Simin, who recently moved in with another friend, also living in Jalousie.

An ongoing IOM-led evaluation of returnees won’t be finalized until the end of this month. But preliminary results involving 500 families show that all remain in “some sort of accommodations.” In many cases though, they have either doubled up, moved back in with families or found cheaper housing, those familiar with the survey said.

Those involved in the government’s rebuilding efforts, particularly President Michel Martelly’s relocation and revitalization of six camps attached to 16 neighborhoods, say progress has been made.

In the last few months, the government has opened a state university and industrial park in the north, where it also unveiled a new asphalt runway to accommodate large carriers. The quake-damaged National Palace was finally demolished, and Haiti celebrated the opening of a new international airport arrival lounge and a privately-financed luxury hotel in the capital.

The number of homeless quake residents, which peaked at 1.5 million shortly after the disaster left more than 300,000 dead, has dropped to 347,284 as of December, IOM said.

Since the government launched its returnee program in 2011, some 635,322 people have been helped by the international community to move out of the camps through either rental subsides, transitional shelters or home repairs, IOM said.

“We know there are still camps, but as you drive on a regular day you don’t see much camps,” said Clement Belizaire, director of the government’s camp relocation and neighborhood rehabilitation program who puts the number of quake homeless at 290,000. “The first priority of the government was public squares; the second was schools and then sports infrastructures. We cleared all the major public structures; we cleared all the major sports infrastructures; we cleared all of the major schools.”

‘DISASTER TAKES US BACK TO ZERO’

But with 450 camp sites still dotting Haiti’s hilly terrain, challenges remain. Tackling them, humanitarians say, requires Haiti to not only prioritize and put in strong, accountable government institutions, but to make the transition from short-term humanitarian aid to more sustainable development.

“You cannot continue to implement stopgap measures to deal with specific short-term issues,” said George Ngwa, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs here. “Haiti goes from one emergency to another. Every time it appears, we are making progress. A disaster takes us back to zero — or minus.”

Before the quake, Jean Guerrier Sanon lived with two of his sisters in Port-au-Prince and got by with help from his parents, rural farmers who paid his school fees with the earnings from their beans, yam and banana plantations in the outskirts of Jeremie. After the quake, everyone went their separate ways including him. He took up residence inside a tent on the Champ de Mars, the public square of Haitian independence heroes in front of the now razed presidential palace.

With the lease on the bedroom he rented for $500-a-year inside a private home up next month, Sanon said he’s running out of options. He has been unable to find a job, and any hope of having his parents help out, he said, was washed away in October when Hurricane Sandy left their crops in ruin.

Moving in with any of his eight brothers and sisters, isn’t an option either, he said. “You’re 27 years old, and not working. Even if they used to help you out, it’s not easy to be sitting up in their house doing nothing,” he said.

Looking out at the now empty Champ de Mars from his doorway, Sanon said its clearing was a “big victory” but bittersweet. “Once they uprooted us,” he said, “they should have turned and look back.”

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