A Million Homeless in Haiti

Despite the fact that over a million people remained homeless in Haiti one month after the earthquake, the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, Ken Merten, is quoted at a State Department briefing on February 12, saying “In terms of humanitarian aid delivery…frankly, it’s working really well, and I believe that this will be something that people will be able to look back on in the future as a model for how we’ve been able to sort ourselves out as donors on the ground and responding to an earthquake.”

What?  Haiti is a model of how the international government and donor community should respond to an earthquake?  The Ambassador must be overworked and need some R&R.  Look at the facts.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported February 11 there are still 1.2 million people living in “spontaneous settlements” in and around Port au Prince as a result of the January 12 earthquake.  These spontaneous settlements are sprawling camps of homeless Haitian children and families living on the ground under sheets.

Over 300,000 are in camps in Carrefour, nearly 200,000 in Port au Prince, and over 100,000 each in Delmas, Petitionville and Leogane according to the UN.

About 25,000 people are camped out on one golf course in Petitionville.  Hundreds of thousands of others are living in soccer fields, church yards, on hillsides, in gullies, and even on the strips of land in the middle of the street.  The UN has identified over 300 such spontaneous settlements.  The Red Cross reports there are over 700.

The UN reported that barely one in five of the people in camps have received tents or tarps as of February 11.  Eighty percent of the hundreds of thousands of children and families still live on the ground under sheets.

Many of these camps are huge.  Nineteen of these homeless camps in the Port au Prince area together house 180,000 people.  More than half of these camps are so spontaneous that there is no organization in the camp to even comprehensively report their needs.

Another half a million people have left Port au Prince, most to the countryside.   As a result there are significant food problems in the countryside.   About 168,000 internally displaced people are living along the border with the Dominican Republic.  Many are with families.  Others are in “spontaneous settlements” of up to a 1000 people.

People living in these densely populated camps will be asked to move to more organized settlements outside the city.  Relocation, says the UN, will be on a voluntary basis.

The U.S. Ambassador knows full well there are 900 or so aid agencies are on the ground in Haiti.  Coordination and communication between those agencies and between them and the Haitian government continues to be a very serious challenge.

Though many people are trying hard to meet the survival needs Haiti, no one besides the Ambassador dares say that it is a model of how to respond.  Partners in Health director Dr. Louise Ivers reported on the very same day that “there is more and more misery” in Port au Prince as fears of typhoid and dysentery haunt the camps as the rainy season looms.

But the still the Haitian spirit prevails.  Everyone who has been to Haiti since the earthquake reports inspiring stories of Haitians helping Haitians despite the tragically inadequate response of the Haitian government and the international community.  That spirit is something people should admire.  Let me finish with a story that illustrates.

One orphanage outside of Port au Prince, home to 57 children, was promised a big tent so the children would no longer have to sleep under the stars.  The tent arrived but without poles to hold it up.  The same group was promised food from UNICEF.  Twelve days later, no food had arrived.  They improvised and constructed scaffolding to create an awning over the mattresses lying on the dirt.  They are finding food from anywhere they can.  “We’re holding on,” said the Haitian director Etienne Bruny, “We’re used to difficult times.”

Haitians are holding on despite the inadequate humanitarian response.  They are the model.

BILL QUIGLEY is Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a Katrina survivor and has been active in human rights in Haiti for years with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. He can be reached at: duprestars@yahoo.com.

Bill Quigley teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans and can be reached at quigley77@gmail.com.