Haitians hunker down in 'transitional' shelters

June 24, 2011 - 12:14 PM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — On a recent night in Carrefour, a densely packed city of twisted streets outside the Haitian capital, a band of thieves surrounded Roseline Sylvain's home and slashed the plastic sheet that is the simple structure's only wall.

The men made off with a lamp, not a huge loss, but significant enough for Sylvain and her family. She's mad at the thieves, of course, but more frustrated that she doesn't have real walls seven months after moving into what aid groups billed as a transitional shelter for earthquake victims.

The structure is one of hundreds of wooden frames with steel or plywood roofs that foreign aid groups erected as a temporary fix for people displaced by the January 2010 earthquake, a way station between squalid tent camps and the new homes that would one day be built for the displaced.

But with the reconstruction effort stalled, tens of thousands of quake survivors throughout the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and its outskirts are resigning themselves to staying in the flimsy shelters for the long haul, even though most of the structures are hardly adequate to withstand an unforgiving Caribbean storm season.

"It's like being right back in a tent," the 28-year-old Sylvain said of her shelter, a one-room structure on a concrete slab that she, her husband, and two children rent from a local landowner for $63 every six months. "The rain comes down the hills and into the shelter."

Her neighbor, Marie Micheline Ridore, 35, piled dirt at the base of her shelter to stave off water rushing down the hillside. She also plugged a tennis ball-sized hole in the wall with a wad of plastic.

What Haitians need are inhabitable homes. That they still don't have them is due to factors ranging from the government's failure to secure land for housing and lay out a workable plan to clear rubble to a delayed election.

President Michel Martelly, who took office May 14, said his government aims to build 400 homes in his first 100 days of office, a goal he is unlikely to meet given that he still hasn't even won legislative approval for his Cabinet nominees. Lawmakers on Tuesday rejected his pick for prime minister, meaning he'll have to pick a new nominee, a vetting process that could take weeks and postpone reconstruction further.

At least 40 builders have shipped a dozen model homes to Haiti at their own expense in the hopes that aid agencies, the Haitian government or the private sector will eventually purchase them in bulk.

Martelly and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, co-chair of a reconstruction panel and the U.N.'s special envoy to Haiti, recently walked through some of the homes, which run the gamut from a military bunker replica to an eco-friendly two-room structure.

"We're hoping for the right guy to buy a bunch," Tim Cornell, managing director of Oregon-based Pole Houses, said as the presidents and their entourage passed his model home. "It's all about hope. There are no guarantees."

In the meantime, families do the best they can. Some remember they still have it better than the estimated 680,000 who are still stuck in the "temporary settlement" tent camps that sprouted up around the city after the earthquake.

"I was happy to move away from under the tarps," said 18-year-old Luckson Jean-Baptiste, who now lives in a small boxlike house with plywood walls in the Delmas area of Port-au-Prince. "In the tents it always flooded."

Sylvain, whose family lived in a tent in the street until the fall, hangs a bedsheet from the corrugated steel ceiling of her shelter to create a bedroom. Cooking pots hang from the wooden beams. She and her husband, a welder, were able to cobble enough money together to buy scraps of plywood to cover the gashes in their damaged walls. But still, there is no bathroom.

An April report issued by the U.S. Office of Inspector General noted that shelters built by different non-governmental agencies using grants from the United States Agency for International Development varied greatly in quality, with some failing to meet international standards. USAID-funded structures make up the majority of the temporary shelters that have been built in post-quake Haiti.

Some were nothing more than plastic sheeting wrapped around timber frames, with no floors, doors, or windows, the report said. Others were more elaborate, with concrete foundations, solid plywood walls, and multiple doors and windows.

"Basically, they are wood-frame tents," Ron Busroe, director of the Salvation Army in Haiti, said of some of the shelters he's seen. "The materials are not going to hold up to the harsh climate in Haiti."

USAID no longer plans to allocate funding to relief groups for shelters, and seven major humanitarian groups say they don't want to build anymore anyway.

The precarious nature of the transitional shelters was apparent earlier this month when a slow-moving storm battered Haiti and killed at least 28 people in mudslides and floods. Two children died in a Port-au-Prince slum when floodwaters toppled a cinderblock wall, which crashed through the wooden side of a transitional shelter built by Catholic Relief Services.

Ricot Charles lost his daughter Medgine, 4, and son Jerry, 1. He survived, but with both psychological and physical scars.

"I can show you: I have a big gash," Charles said as he unbuttoned his striped shirt to reveal the parallel scrapes and scars on his bony shoulder. "This is where the rocks fell."

CRS spokeswoman Robyn Fieser wrote in an email that the charity was trying to help the Charles family and had offered counseling services. CRS will build another transitional shelter should they ask for one, she added.

And for those like Sylvain who are threatened by flooding, Nicole Harris, a spokeswoman for CARE, said the group was raising the foundations of shelters and was handing out dirt in flood-prone areas including Carrefour.

Such efforts won't do much to put those like Dominique Philogene at ease.

"These are the worst shelters; I don't feel secure," the 30-year-old Philogene said as he stood outside his closet-size, windowless box of a shelter in Delmas.

His shed, wrapped in a plastic sheet, will do little to protect him against the rain that's been pouring down in much of the Caribbean for weeks and is expected to get worse with the peak of the hurricane season.

"The foreigners could've provided something better than this for all the money they're spending in Haiti," he said.