In Haiti, the Poor Become Visible

Why would victims of the Haiti earthquake stay in overcrowded camps if they had somewhere else to go? More than six months after the earthquake, people ought to be leaving camps that were set up under emergency conditions. Indeed, some 500,000 people who were left without shelter by the earthquake have moved in with host families. And a structural survey of 200,000 buildings in Port-au-Prince found nearly 75% require either no or minimal repairs. Nonetheless, some suspect that the camps have actually grown with the passage of time, so that today 1.5 million people - or more - continue to reside in precarious and overcrowded tent cities.

The displaced stay in camps despite the fact that life there is miserable and their frustrations deepen with each passing day. The scorching summer temperatures rise under the plastic tarps. The floor may be dirt or, when it rains, mud. There is very little privacy. When I walked through one camp in the early evening, I found inhabitants taking sponge baths out in the open in their underwear, using small plastic basins. I averted my eyes, in the hope of preserving a small piece of their dignity. My colleagues run programs to aid and protect camp residents and their children, but bigger changes are needed if their lives are to return to anything like normal.

One reason that some Haitians stay in camps is they fear living under concrete and experiencing the trauma of another earthquake. Another reason is because aid is handed out there. Clean water, food for children, soap, and hygiene kits are distributed in the camps. Camp work programs help some earn a little money. For the poorest Haitians, this help may leave them better off than before the earthquake.

A third reason is that camp residents may be betting on more help to come and do not want to miss out. The tents they inhabit now are supposed to be replaced by something sturdier -- transitional shelters that will have a concrete foundation, timber or steel frames, and a bit more room. These will do a better job withstanding rain and hurricanes, and any future tremors, while permanent housing is built. As of mid-July, however, only a fraction of these transitional shelters had been erected: roughly 5,700 (or 4%) of 135,000 planned..

A senior UN official gave a fuller explanation of why Haitians would stay in camps and suggested that the displaced constitute "a social movement." "Apart from those who have no choice, others remain in camps because they have lived without real jobs, schooling or adequate shelter for years," he said. They had struggled to live and raise families in poverty. Now, assembled in camps, the eyes of the world are on them. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged; delegations of officials, journalists and celebrities visit. The Government of Haiti is under pressure to rescue them and their presence serves as a reminder that all is not yet well.

Sadly, there is no plan to get the displaced into permanent housing soon. Discussions are bogged down in legal arguments about eminent domain, land titles, ownership, and compensation. Even attempts to resettle camp residents in tents in safer locations have had problems. Meanwhile, Haitian government officials are impatient to move beyond the single subject of transitional shelter- a temporary solution at best - to wholesale reconstruction of the country. But questions about when rubble will be removed from the streets and who will lead urban planning efforts are also yet to be resolved.

Aid experts believe that the calamity of the earthquake offers an opportunity for Haitians to receive the long-term development assistance they desperately need and, as former President Clinton has said, to "build back better." But at least for the next six months, the plight of Haitian families living in severe conditions deserves to be a central preoccupation for all of us. With or without the help they need, they will continue to serve as a living and breathing symbol of poverty and survival in the face of extreme adversity.

Please click here to find out more about the International Rescue Committee's work in Haiti.