Friday, December 17, 2010


(Miami Herald) - By Frances Robles

The population living in tent camps in Haiti has dropped significantly, especially in areas outside of Greater Port-au-Prince.

In a possible sign of progress in quake-ravaged Haiti, the number of people living in homeless camps has dropped by a third, the United Nations reported in a new study.

The population of quake survivors living in tent cities dropped to 1 million, from a peak of 1.5 million in July, the International Office of Migration study said.

But the 130,000 families still living in tents and under tarps in Port-au-Prince and Delmas -- the congested urban center -- underscore the challenges Haiti still faces finding suitable land to relocate people and their homes.

The largest decrease took place in Leogane, a city 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince that had 185 camps in September and 125 last month.

``The decrease is even more dramatic in semi-urban and rural areas and towns away from Greater Port-au-Prince, such as Leogane, Petit Goave, Gressier, Grand Goave and Jacmel, where the population in camps has decreased by over 50 percent and in the case of Leogane, by two-thirds,'' the report said.

``We started noticing a large drop in September and October, and that kept accelerating,'' said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Office of Migration in Haiti. ``I think communities are beginning to be rebuilt. This is the tipping point. People are starting to get the idea that they need to start moving on.''

Many haven't had a choice: Thousands of people were booted out of camps located on private property, in schools and churches. The study showed that of the 1,199 camps visited in September, 12 percent were empty two months later.

Other reasons people have left the squalid camps are bad weather, cholera and, for some, better alternatives. Some finally lost the fear of moving back home, and others moved into transitional shelters.

While the United Nations agency -- which took the lead on housing issues -- saw the population drop as a positive development, other aid groups were not so sure. With no way to track where people went, organizations worry that some people may have gone to worse conditions.

``In some camps where World Vision has run activities, the movement of families largely occurred when landowners set deadlines to recover their property,'' said World Vision spokeswoman Amy Parodi. ``Our view from that perspective is that we don't know enough to feel confident that the movement is a good thing. And we certainly have concerns that it might not be for some families.''

She stressed that World Vision's activities were limited to 27 camps.

The International Office of Migration's Doyle said many people started going back home when services such as running water began returning to their neighborhoods. As some families left, others went after them.

``Nobody wants to be the last one back to their community,'' he said. ``Someone might take your spot.''

About 100,000 have moved into transitional shelters, he said. Others whose homes were deemed safe have returned.

Experts had estimated that at least 40 percent of the housing stock in the capital was safe -- but sitting empty -- after a Jan. 12 earthquake killed nearly 300,000 people. Other homes were damaged and are now being fixed.

``The fear of death receded over time,'' Doyle said.

The report said that 75 percent of people surveyed said the primary reason they left the camps was ``to go home.''

``The intensity of the rainy season made it unbearable for many to remain in often-leaking tents. Fears of cholera due to poor sanitation and hygiene also persuaded many people to seek alternative housing solutions outside of the camps,'' the report said.

But at camps that offer good services, the population has swelled.

American Red Cross spokeswoman Julie Sell said the numbers cited in the report were a positive sign, but it's too optimistic to think they mean all camps will be cleared any time soon.

``There are still large swaths of the city covered in rubble and will be for some time,'' she said. ``Not everyone will have a better place to move right away.''

Janide Touissaint, 40, says she has seen neighbors and friends trickle out of her sprawling tent camp, Accra, near Delmas 32, as they've either fixed their homes or have had new shelters financed by nonprofit groups built on their existing lots.

She was renting when the earthquake hit and has not been offered any permanent solutions.

Several thousand people live in her camp, where garbage and dirty water flow in rivulets between the tents.

``People with homes are trying to fix them and leave here,'' she said.``Life at the camp is too hard.''

Miami Herald correspondent Jim Wyss contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince.

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