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Aid worker Colin Walker helps a group of neighbourhood volunteers in Jacmel assemble a tent provided by the Swiss NGO MEDAIR. The frame of the tent can later be used to construct a rudimentary house. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Aid worker Colin Walker helps a group of neighbourhood volunteers in Jacmel assemble a tent provided by the Swiss NGO MEDAIR. The frame of the tent can later be used to construct a rudimentary house. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Haiti turns to housing the homeless Add to ...

What's the best way to empty a 6,000-person tent city?

That's the vexing question that has plagued government officials and aid agencies for weeks as they grapple to find a long-term housing solution for the thousands of newly homeless people in Jacmel. It's a challenge that's taking on an increasing sense of urgency as the Caribbean hurricane season - which could quickly turn a tent city into a scene of muddy devastation - approaches.

While many of those who lost their homes in Haiti's earthquake have been sleeping in the streets in flimsy camping tents, thousands more have settled their families into two massive camps. With almost nightly rain, conditions in the camps are increasingly grim. At Pinchinat, the larger 6,000-person camp located on a school football pitch, residents eat only once a day, crime is rampant and a prostitution ring has recently sprung up.

Still, the question of what to do about the camp is hotly debated. Improve conditions? Break up the residents into smaller groups and relocate them to new camps? Or launch a drive to clear away the remains of their shattered residences and send them home?

Shelter experts advocate for the latter. "The best solution is not to put people in camps. Camps tend to stick around," said Sarah Davies, a Red Cross official recently appointed to co-ordinate all non-government shelter efforts in Jacmel. "You're tied into providing services. You build up an expectation that can't be sustained."

The city officials who have authority over Pinchinat are aware of that and are leaning toward evacuating the camp. But they're worried about the optics - being seen as evicting scarred residents from their new homes.

While the debate over what to do rages on in thrice-weekly meetings held by a multinational group called the Shelter Cluster, one street called Rue de l'Embouchure on the edge of Jacmel's heritage district - which borders one of the worst-hit areas of the city - has been getting a unique facelift.

Over the past week, residents armed with tools purchased in Jacmel by the Swiss NGO Medair have been clearing debris from residential lots. On nine of the cleared lots, Medair has erected metal-framed tent-like structures that, when bolted into the ground, are designed to evolve from temporary shelters into permanent homes as families accumulate the means - wood, corrugated tin and plastic sheets - to build onto them.

"It looks like a tent and feels like a tent, but it's your building block to a permanent house," said Roger Sandberg, Medair's country director in Haiti.

Mr. Sandberg said Medair went ahead with the shelter program - which it hopes to roll out across needy areas of rural southeastern Haiti provided it receives sufficient donations - because it believes getting people out of camps is critical once the emergency phase of a disaster has passed.

"You don't want people in a camp. Camps will then turn into informal settlements," he said. "What no one wants to see is that in two years Pinchinat camp is Pinchinat settlement. We want to see that it's a football pitch with kids playing on it."

On Rue de l'Embouchure, a low-income street that is home to more than 200 families, the response to Medair's program has been positive, even though the organization requires homeowners to muster groups of friends and family to help clear the lots. Typically, the clearing takes two days. Assembling the tents, which are partitioned inside to sleep six people (although many more can squeeze in) requires just two hours.

Recipients of the tents have been selected based on their level of need with the help of neighbourhood leader Jean Claude Mondesir.

There are signs that it's going to take more than secure shelters to lure people back to their homes, however. Evans Samdy is one of the lucky residents who was given a Medair shelter. The 35-year-old had been sleeping on the ground with his two children at Pinchinat, a place he says was "very humiliating" for its lack of privacy, places to wash and go to the bathroom. Most days his family members would make the long walk back across town to their crumbled home to wash in relative privacy behind the piles of bricks that were once a house.

Now, they sleep at their "home" each night. But in the daytime they travel back to Pinchinat, where they know they'll get at least one meal. With Jacmel's economy stalled and no income, Mr. Samdy is afraid to walk away from a steady meal.

"The problem is this: They [Medair]have no food," Mr. Samdy said in an interview one afternoon at Pinchinat. "If you can solve the problem, we'd go home right now."

Others at Pinchinat have begun to dread the city-wide adoption of Medair's solution. Jean Raymond has become a community leader in the tent city and organizes citizen security patrols to protect it at night.

He lost his home in the earthquake, but he didn't own the land it was on. While he would prefer an alternative shelter option to Pinchinat, his family cannot afford to rent a house or even land to stay on. "If they put me out, I don't know what I'll do," he said.

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