Jul 132010
Authors: By Trenton Daniel, McClatchy Newspapers

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti –– Before the earthquake, Frances Etienne scraped by with ingenuity and hard work. Using micro-loans to purchase inventory for her business, she sold spaghetti, spices and other food from a small neighborhood store.

Then the tremors struck and wiped out her business –– but not her $3,700 debt.

Since then, she has lived at the Place St. Pierre camp in a tarp shelter with her husband and two teenage daughters, selling cooking charcoal for a living. She makes about $3 on every 110-pound bag she sells. She has fallen behind on her children’s school fees and must pay off the business loans within six months.

“The biggest problem is that we can’t go home,” said Etienne, 39. “When you’re obligated to pay these loans, you can’t do anything. You’re stuck.”

Six months after the January earthquake that devastated Haiti, 1.5 million people like Etienne remain in more than 1,340 tent cities and camps, unable or unwilling to leave.

They stay because their homes were flattened. Or, if their homes still stand, landlords have raised rents to unaffordable levels –– taking advantage of the housing shortage or passing along the increased costs of maintaining property in post-quake Haiti. They stay because their livelihoods were destroyed along with the buildings.

Other tent city residents are waiting for help, from the government or international organizations. The Haitian government has come under fire from camp dwellers and even U.S. senators, including Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, for not moving fast enough to find land to build housing for the displaced in the capital of about 3 million people.

A few solutions are in the works: The government and international agencies are trying to figure out a way to help tenants cover the increase in rents. Relief groups are also building temporary shelters in less populated spots.

The camps sprang up immediately after the temblor, which claimed a government-estimated 300,000 lives. Afraid to move indoors or unable to return home, many Haitians set up camp on public plazas, soccer fields, tennis courts, schoolyards, even a nine-hole golf course.

The camps –– unavoidable symbols of the hardships continuing to confront Haiti –– range from clusters of shacks on traffic-flanked medians to city-within-city settlements or sprawling tent suburbs housing as many as 7,000 people. In some, committees have appointed themselves custodians of day-to-day affairs.

How long people will remain in the settlements is anyone’s guess, though some residents have been booted from schools and other private properties. In the public plazas they complain that the authorities are trying to evict them –– something the mayor of Petionville, a Port-au-Prince suburb, denies.

“We’re not pushing anybody away,” Mayor Claire Lydie Parent said recently in her City Hall office. “We want them to have a better place to live until we make development plans. I don’t have a plan to move them out. I just want to help them, help them find a place to live.”

In a camp across the street from City Hall, Etienne is among 11,000 seeking shelter, according to relief agencies. When she arrived the day of the quake, she and her family slept on a blanket. She hoped to return to her former life. But slowly, she and many others have begun to worry that may never happen.

These days, progress is measured in small differences –– replacing a single overhead tarp with a walled tarp shelter she received in February from relief workers. She shares the closet-size space with her common-law husband, Eric Estira, and her two daughters, 13 and 18. Her son, Marquis, 9, perished in the quake when a wall crushed him as he was walking home from school. A classroom portrait of him, always nearby, helps her remember him.

A month before the quake, Etienne took out loans from three lenders for a total of about $3,700 for her corner store in the Petionville neighborhood of Nerette. The family needed income: Estira had been laid off from his job at a gas station.

When the 7.0-magnitude quake hit, it destroyed the building that housed her store, along with the two-room home Etienne and Estira shared.
“If the house weren’t destroyed, I would be back now,” Etienne said. “In the day, it’s so warm inside (the shelter). At night, rainwater comes in. We live like animals.”

An estimated 661,000 people have moved out of Port-au-Prince and back to their hometowns in the countryside –– though some have returned to the capital searching for work. Etienne, a native of a village in southwestern Haiti, opted to stay put.

“I don’t know how to farm and, to live in the countryside, you need to know how to farm,” Etienne said.

In downtown Port-au-Prince, a shantytown has emerged in Champs de Mars, a 42-acre public plaza across the street from the crumbled National Palace. Once adorned with flowing fountains and shimmering pools, it’s now one of Haiti’s largest tent cities.

There are signs of permanency. The camp has hair salons, bars and restaurants, all made of debris plucked from the wreckage. Homes are fashioned of cinder block and tin and tarp and wood. Some sport doors, windows, even concrete “foundations” –– slabs poured at the base of tents to keep out rain.

Claude Eagenor moved to the plaza with his wife and two children the day after the quake when the two-room, $313-a-year home he rented in a neighborhood north of the plaza collapsed. Now the family lives in a one-room shack with a tarp ceiling and corrugated tin walls. A tiny padlock on the door provides an illusion of security.

“I would like to go to another place but I don’t have the means,” Eagenor, 42, said as his daughter, Kimberle, 9, fidgeted in a plastic chair.

A tailor for 20 years, Eagenor has found only sporadic work, sewing clothes a couple of days a week. Many of his customers have lost their livelihoods; tailoring has become an afterthought.

Like Eagenor, Emmaculee Pierre is employed but her job as an office sweeper –– it pays $62.50 a month –– is not enough to leave Champs de Mars. To cut costs, she sent her two boys, ages 15 and 10, to stay with her father in southwestern Haiti.

Others are leaving the camps as well. Orelus Zoro Babel, 22, is among an unknown number of people who’ve managed to return to permanent housing. In the days after the quake, he made money charging cell phone batteries in the Place St. Pierre camp. In February, he landed a job as a technician for a non-governmental organization. And in mid-June he moved into an apartment.

To help move others out of the camps, the government recently launched a pilot project to reduce the population living in Champs de Mars by employing residents of Fort National, a hilltop neighborhood just north of the plaza, to clear rubble from homes. The effort aims to send 700 Fort National families now living in Champs de Mars back to their community.

On a Tuesday morning, several dozen workers in dusty yellow T-shirts and red helmets hauled off debris in wheelbarrows and buckets under the blazing July sun. The employees welcome the jobs but say $5 a day isn’t enough to get them out of Champs de Mars and back into a house or apartment.

“After the earthquake, all the houses have become more expensive,” said Shiller Jean Gilles Rose, 25, leading a 20-person debris removal team.

In Bel Air, a hilly neighborhood just west of Fort National, Bony Frantz and his family have owned a three-room rental apartment for about 15 years. His tenants moved to the countryside after the quake. Since then, he’s received five or six inquiries but no takers. Renters must pay $1,250 per year –– up front –– compared to a pre-quake rent of $750 a year.

“If you don’t have the money, you can’t stay here,” Frantz, 53, said in the oven-hot space, now vacant and tagged “green,” meaning U.S. structural engineers and Haitian inspectors deemed it safe to occupy.

Frantz said building materials cost more now, pointing to a light fixture with wires protruding.

For Etienne, life shows no signs of improvement as her stay in Place St. Pierre has stretched from weeks to months. Tensions have become the norm as tent city neighbors lash out at one another. Some are accused of being thieves and rapists.

Through it all, Etienne –– like so many others in Haiti –– remains in mourning. Immediately after the quake, she tied one of her son’s shirts around her waist, to keep him close. Even now, his clothes are never far from her, kept inside the family’s shelter.

On a recent Sunday, she pulled out a striped polo shirt to remind her of the boy she’d lost. She held it to her face, and began to cry.

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