Two children receive oral rehydration treatment for cholera at La Piste camp. (Photo: Amanda George/British Red Cross)
One year after the January 12, 2010 earthquake, more than 1 million people remain homeless in Haiti. Homemade shelters and tents are everywhere in Port-au-Prince. People are living under plastic tarps or sheets in concrete parks , in encampments that sprawl up to the edges of major streets, in the side streets, behind buildings, in between buildings, on the sides of hills - literally everywhere.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that more than 1 million people - 380,000 of them children - still live in displacement camps.
"The recovery process," as UNICEF says, "is just beginning."
One of the critical questions remaining is how many people are still without adequate housing. While there are fewer big camps of homeless and displaced people, there has been extremely little rebuilding. The United Nations (UN) reported that 97,000 tents have been provided since the quake. Tents are an improvement over living under a sheet, but they are not homes. Many families have moved multiple times in the last year, circulating among rough shelters, tents, one or more camps and situations living alongside other families.
It is important to understand that a family may leave the huge, unsupervised camps and still be homeless someplace else, such as a tent in another part of the city or country. Families' moves from one type of homelessness to another cannot be declared progress against homelessness and displacement.
The key human rights goal is for people displaced by the earthquake to obtain housing, not for them to simply move out of the displacement camps.
One illustration of the housing challenge facing the Haitian people can be found in a recent report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The IOM December report announced a reduction in the number of persons remaining in displacement camps. The IOM then wrongly concluded that the number of people displaced and homeless was reduced accordingly. Why is this conclusion wrong? Because the IOM report does not even try to track where displaced persons go after they leave a particular camp. They equate homeless families moving out of displacement camps with families finding housing.
These types of erroneous conclusions are not only misleading - they also threaten to hinder badly needed relief efforts one year after Haiti's devastating earthquake.
Careful consideration of the IOM report provides an opportunity to examine some of the many important housing challenges still facing Haitians:
IOM assertion: "We finally start to see light at the end of the tunnel for the earthquake-affected population. ... [T]hese are hopeful signs that many victims of the quake are getting on with their lives." IOM reported that there has been a 31 percent decrease in the number of internally displaced people (IDP) living on IDP sites in Haiti since July.
Fact: Getting on with their lives? Of Haiti's estimated 1,268 displacement camps, at least 29 percent have been forcibly closed - meaning tens of thousands of people have been evicted, often by violent means. Many who are forcibly evicted from one site move on to set up camp for their families in another, often more dangerous, location. This is not getting on with life; this is searching for less dangerous places for the family tent.
IOM assertion: People with houses labeled red (uninhabitable or extremely dangerous) or yellow (in need of repair) have "chosen to return to the place of origin or nearby to establish a shelter."
Fact: As of December 16, 2010, only 2,074 of the estimated 180,000 destroyed houses had been repaired and only a small percentage of the rubble had been cleared. Decisions by desperate homeowners to move back into still-destroyed homes is hardly progress.
It is not even possible for large numbers of people who were renters to return to their destroyed homes. The destruction of more than 180,000 private residences, coupled with the influx of international aid workers, has caused Haiti's rental market to soar. An estimated 80 percent of Haitians rendered homeless by the earthquake were either renters or occupiers of homes without any formal land title. Current rents are unreachable for the majority of displaced Haitians, many of whom lost their means of livelihood during the earthquake. The IOM admits that, "The lack of land tenure and the destruction of many houses in already congested slums left many of those displaced with few options but to remain in shelters."
IOM assertion: "Some households rendered homeless after the earthquake left congested Port-au-Prince all-together, going home to the regions. Others sent their children to the countryside for a better life."
Fact: Rural Haiti before the earthquake was home to 52 percent of the population, 88 percent of which was classified as poor; 67 percent was considered extremely poor. The per capita income for rural residents was one-third of that for people living in urban areas, and rural Haitians' access to basic services was extremely limited. Disaster response following the earthquake has not tackled the extreme structural violence that exists in rural areas, and Hurricane Tomas further destroyed the livelihoods of rural communities. People moving from displacement camps in the city to tents in the countryside have not really moved out of homelessness - they have just moved.
IOM Assertion: "Surviving in poor living conditions during the long hurricane season has persuaded many to seek alternative housing solutions."
Fact: Homeless people are always seeking "alternative housing solutions." Camp conditions even before Hurricane Tomas and the cholera outbreak revealed that displaced Haitians were in camps because they had no "alternative housing solutions." According to a study conducted by City University of New York (CUNY) professor Mark Schuller, before both Hurricane Tomas and the cholera outbreak, 40 percent of displacement camps did not have access to water and 30 percent did not have toilets of any kind. Only 10 percent of families even had tents, many of which were ripped beyond repair during the hurricane season; the rest were sleeping under tarps, or even bedsheets. A study conducted even earlier by the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti found that 78 percent of families lived without enclosed shelter; 44 percent of families primarily drank untreated water; 27 percent of families defecated in a container, a plastic bag, or on open ground in the camps; 75 percent of families had someone go an entire day without eating during one week; and over 50 percent of families had children who had gone without eating for an entire day.
Human rights principles require housing for displaced people, not the forcing away of earthquake victims from displacement camps. Haiti needs practical and sustainable solutions for re-housing, along with services and protections for the people who are still homeless.
One year after the quake, it is critically important for the international community to assist Haitians in securing real housing. The one million homeless Haitians - and the hundreds of thousands who have moved out of the large homeless camps into other areas - are our sisters and brothers, and they still need our solidarity and help.