INSIDE A TENT CITY SLUM
(Free Press) - By Christine Parrish
The 2010 earthquake in Haiti did more than kill thousands of people; it has led to a loss of family structure and is breeding a generation of foreign aid dependence that is weakening Haitian resilience, according to Michael Joell Jeune, a young Haitian who was raised in the Grace International orphanage on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince and who was attending Emory University in Georgia when the earthquake happened. Within hours, Jeune returned to Haiti to take over as manager of a tent city that sprang up unplanned on the 16-acre compound that housed a home for widows, a hospital, schools, an orphanage, and a church, some of which collapsed in the earthquake.
At the beginning of March 2012, Jeune walked a group of observers, including Free Press reporter Christine Parrish, through the Grace tent city of 11,000 adults and an uncounted number of children that could easily swell the numbers to well over 40,000.
In his own words, Jeune talks about how the camp formed and the challenges Grace International faces in managing it.
People started coming here right after the earthquake. First it was 7,000 adults, then 25,000 adults, now it is around 11,000 adults.
This was not a planned tent camp. It just happened. It was a swarm of people who came here after the quake because there was open space.
The camp is a city within a city and we have to manage it, just like you would a city, with services for trash, electricity, water, food, sewage.
Right after the earthquake, here at Grace Village, there was no food and no water and no help. We had about 60 doctors, but it was triage, so if there was no visible bleeding, the patients were set aside. Many of them died of internal injuries while they waited.
At that time, gasoline was $90 U.S. a gallon. I knew Americans were just coming into Port-au-Prince at the airport, wanting to help and not knowing where to go. I went and rounded them up and brought them back here.
We organized it and named the different blocks after different neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, as a way to organize civic-work and education in the tent camp. We had a leader for each "neighborhood" that rotated to a new leader every month. We didn't want there to be any coups.
We had a block named Villa Rosa, one named Sun City. The funny thing was, the people in the blocks started to act like the people in that Port-au-Prince neighborhood. They started to take on the characteristics. In some blocks that was good, but the block named Sun City turned very bad.
[Cite Soleil, or Sun City, is a notorious Port-au-Prince slum run by drug lords. It is essentially lawless, since law enforcement typically refuse to enter. When they do, they often go in force, creating as much danger for the residents as for the criminals.]
Gangsters started to gather there. It was very dangerous and we couldn't control it, so I decided to take away all the names and give the blocks numbers, and move some people to new blocks.
We have had to create gates within gates to manage the people. The gates are locked and guarded after ten at night. I didn't move any of the gangsters out of Block 11, which had been Sun City. I moved out anyone who was a victim. Pretty soon, there were only gangsters left and they had no-one to prey on and they just left the tent city. The block now has no tents. It is the guard center and there is a community center.
There are all kinds of people here: Catholics, Baptists, vodou believers, a judge, cops, teachers and homeless people. We probably have criminals who were released from the prisons because of the earthquake. Many go out to work every day. Some of the children go to the school; their parents have enough for the school fees.
There are three categories of people here. The first own property and are stuck; they have no place to go back to and have to save.
There is no mortgage system in Haiti; people build their homes over the course of 20 or 30 years. When they can afford to build more, they do.
Do you ever wonder why you see homes with the top floor not finished, looking like they have been there awhile? With the rebar sticking out of the top? That is because the family is saving money to finish the home.
In 45 seconds, their cars and their homes were lost.
With no mortgage and no home insurance, they have no way to start to rebuild at this time.
We have people who were homeless before the quake who feel lucky to have this; we have people who lost the home they owned and are trying to save enough to start to build another one.
We also have people who are renting their place to aid organizations and they stay here, in the camp. Part of the reason for that is that foreigners can't own property in Haiti. They must rent cars and housing.
We have people who could leave right now. They have homes they have decided to rent out and stay here for free. I cannot imagine why someone would choose to do that; this is no place to raise a family. This is no environment to live in.
Families are important in Haiti, but a lot of the family structure changed after the quake. There are a lot of unwed mothers in the camp. There are young girls - 9, 10, 11 years old - who are selling themselves for a plate of food. You can see them any night, around 8 p.m.
There are 11,000 adults and we have food for less than about 400 kids, one serving to take home and share with their families, and we don't have the money every day for the Lord's Kitchen. It is day by day, depending on donations. We have had it three days this week.
[The children are let in through the tall solid gates in batches of 30 or so, their hands marked with a pen as they come through, so they can't go through the line twice. They stand in two lines, one for girls and one for boys, and food servers, who live in the tent city themselves, keep the lines moving. The feeding station is managed so that ten children go through the line at a time. There is no shoving. It is closely managed. And when the food is gone, there are often still unfed children behind the gate, as there was the day we visited.]
This tent city is a big struggle for Grace International because we don't have the money to run it or control it and we are up against a time limit for squatter's rights. The government allows people to claim squatter's rights after three years and that is coming up next January. People know this and we have already had seven lawsuits brought just because we moved people from one tent site in the city to another.
There is a big crunch to get people off the property by next year, so we can rebuild our school and hospital. I pray. I don't know how we are going to do it.
You know the Sean Penn camp and what happened there. Penn rented the golf course for one and a half to two years, but he is not renting it anymore. Now, the owner is stuck with the problem of who is left living there and the squatter's rights coming up. Now, everyone is afraid to let people stay on their property. All landowners are afraid it will bite them in the butt.
Most of the effects of the earthquake are gone now.
The Haitians in the camp, we are a resilient people. We have had hurricanes, coups, epidemics and we always get back up and keep going.
The foreign aid that comes to the country is necessary, but the best way to do it is to partner with local operations. For long-term help, we need education. That is the lever.
There is no public schooling in Haiti. People must pay about $30 U.S. a month for school, which includes the school uniform, books and a meal at lunchtime.
[The U.S. Department of State clarifies the cost of education: Public education is free, when people can find it. The cost is still high for Haitian families who must pay for uniforms, textbooks, and supplies, but around 90 percent of primary schools are either private or parochial schools. Though Haitians place a high value on education, few can afford to send their children to secondary school and primary school enrollment is dropping due to economic conditions.]
Haitians are not stupid people. They know that education is what it's all about. They know it is the only way to improve their lives. It's common knowledge. But many Haitians cannot go straight through school, so it is not unusual for some Haitians to go to school for one year, then work for a year while another child in the family goes, then go back for a year. They take turns, so it is not unusual for a Haitian to graduate from high school at the age of 25.
[The literacy rate is still quite low; the United Nations reports that 49 percent of the population can read and write, at least at a basic level. The American literacy rate is 99 percent.]
In the short term, all these aid organizations have created a lot of dependency in Haiti. People get comfortable, even in a place like this. They get complacent. They lose their incentive. It is the most horrible thing that could happen to them. This is not a place to raise a family.