Tucked next to a gated office building off Delmas 60 in Port-au-Prince, staggered tents and makeshift shelters are packed in tiers cascading over twin hillsides. Along a path scattered with ti machans (small-scale vendors) and men playing cards beside hand-painted Michel Martelly campaign signs, live Natasha Seraphin and Cesar Emanuele Junior, a young married couple with their baby Charles.
Their shelter, like so many others filling formerly open terrain throughout the city, is meticulously designed as a tiny house. The entryway leads to a thin sitting area, with a television, powered by electricity pirated from lines along the two main thoroughfares nearby. In the corner, shelves hold dishes and utensils, and Natasha washes plates and clothes in a two-foot-wide hallway. Clothes hang along the walls, and in the back is a cramped cooking area. A bedroom packed with a makeshift bed and the rest of their belongings, closed off by tarpaulin walls and a curtained doorway, fills most of the space.
More than one year after last January’s deadly earthquake, Natasha and Junior are among the 800,000 displaced people still living in a tent camp.
But, this is not the couple’s first tent camp experience.
After the earthquake destroyed their homes, they built their shelter in a walled-in complex. There were toilets and water was delivered. But in June the owner of the land where they had been squatting wanted his property back.
“They forced us to leave,” Junior said. The owner gave them fifteen days notice. Then when they didn’t vacate on the set date the owner locked them in until they agreed to vacate the property. They packed up and rebuilt their home just outside the gated compound.
Natasha and Junior were illegally evicted. Evictions have been occurring throughout the earthquake-hit zone since last February. But the International Organization of Migration spokesperson, Leonard Doyle, says the team working to address evictions issues are “increasingly busy.”
Most of the tent camps in Port-au-Prince were built spontaneously on any open land - the vast majority of which is privately owned. The slow pace of reconstruction means that those living in tents, along with landowners, are despairing that the situation won’t change.
“I have the impression I’ll never leave,” said Junior.
For people living in tents, this means a dulling of hope, and a sort of normalization of their situation. Natasha sees the silver lining of their displacement: “The earthquake messed up most families, but it sorted out ours. Now I live with my husband and my baby.” Before Natasha and Junior were living with respective family members, despite their marriage and child.
“I’m happy we’re living together now, but I ask God for a normal place to live,” Natasha says. She craves stability, and worries about Charles growing up in a camp: “I don’t want him to play with the other children here because they say bad things I don’t want him to learn.”
Landowners are also frustrated with the seemingly endless prolongation of the displacement problem.
“The lack of movement on land and land rights means landlords are, understandably, getting impatient. And some of them are taking it into their own hands,” Doyle of IOM explained.
The land where Natasha and Junior originally set up camp is now a fenced-in house and garden. Corn and bananas grow where their tents once stood.
At the root of the tent problem is land. Haiti’s land title registry is notoriously disorganized. Few property owners can prove they own the land. The land titles are paper and some were lost or destroyed in the earthquake. Some plots have numerous people claiming it as their own, with different papers to prove it.
In the context of land tenure complications, the Haitian government has been slow to find alternative housing for the hundreds of thousands still displaced. Leslie Voltaire, an urban planner and former presidential candidate, says the stagnation is due to government incompetence.
“There is not an office here, or a ministry, that has the know-how and the real estate experts to go and deal with the owners,” Voltaire said. “The consequence of that is disorder, chaos, frustration and nothing happening. And you have mounting turmoil.”
Jeena Shah, a lawyer with the Office of International Lawyers (Bureau des Avocats Internationaux) advocates against eviction. Shah acknowledged, “It’s the government’s fault, not the landlords. Why is the landlord as an individual getting punished?”
But the right to housing is enshrined in international and Haitian national law.
“The property owner’s right to property does not necessarily trump someone else’s right to have somewhere to live,” Shah explained, “so it is incumbent on the government of Haiti to…ensure that proper alternative housing is built…that is an obligation of the government. But until then, this is everybody’s problem.”
In Camp Mezyun off the Airport Road, BAI and other advocacy groups supported tent dwellers protesting their impending eviction. People in the camp had received notice that they would be expelled. They spoke of their conflicting feelings about living in the tents and facing eviction.
“We want to leave, but we can’t leave. We have no money to make a house. We can’t just go into the street,” said Irsilia Benjamin, a 61-year-old living in a stifling tent with her husband who suffers from pancreatic cancer.
“If you want to remove people from the land you need to go through the legal process,” Mark Snyder of International Action Ties, an advocacy organization, explained above the din of shouting protesters. “You’re going to have to prove private property, and that in itself, to have the single paper that says you own the property and no one can test it, that itself is a very long process. The difficulty in proving private property to legally evict people is scaring landowners into illegally evicting residents,” Snyder said.
The government has taken some land by imminent domain, land in Coraille and Carredeux. But the camps that have sprung up there - while safe from eviction - are widely reviled as failures.
So the push and pull between camp dwellers, landowners and the government continues. Haitian President Rene Preval has been widely critiqued for disappearing after the earthquake and doing little for the earthquake-affected. The international community says it remains committed to helping Haiti, but most of the relief funding has gone to NGOs who are not responsible for buying land for resettlement. Meanwhile the political vacuum means that the reconstruction is suspended as everyone waits to see who will be elected to direct the process.
But while the reconstruction stagnates, people continue to live and die in the camps, and are increasingly forced to move.
“This is the hard bit I think,” said Doyle. Those that left the camps to move back into semi-habitable homes already have, “and there are lots who just cannot.” Those left in the camps now are those who really have nowhere else to go. Therefore the government - when there is a government again - will have to wade through the legal tangle that is land tenure in Haiti and find somewhere for people to live.
“What are we fighting for?” Shah mused, “What does it mean when you are fighting to live in a place that is absolutely degrading and an insult to your dignity? What we’re working on is that people are not forcibly evicted but it’s just so horrible that I’m fighting for them to stay in such horrible conditions.”