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In Haiti, grand plans give way to $500 and a push out the door

Swoan Parker/Washington Post

The 20,000 people living in Haiti’s most notorious earthquake refugee camp, which sprawls in front of the National Palace, are being told to find someplace else to live.

PORT-AU-PRINCE - International aid worker Emmett Fitzgerald has to get 20,000 very poor people squatting in front of the National Palace to pack up their tarpaulins and tin, their plastic buckets and soiled mats - to empty the most notorious camp in Haiti and go home.

The hard part: What home?

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There is not enough money and not enough time to build cities of tomorrow in Haiti today. So the 4,641 families that have lived for the past two years in the Champ de Mars park in downtown Port-au-Prince will get $500 to return to the kind of desperate housing they had before the earthquake.

In Haiti, that is considered good news.

“We’re not talking about a house. We’re talking about renting a room, space on the floor, with a roof, access to water, a communal kitchen, maybe a toilet,’’ Fitzgerald said. As program coordinator for the International Organization for Migration, he is working with the Haitian government to clear the Champ de Mars camp, with a $20 million grant from the Canadian government.

If that sounds grim, the residents of Champ de Mars are the lucky ones. Given the magnitude of the housing crisis, combined with donor fatigue and lack of investment, the promise of constructing new public housing to absorb the homeless in Haiti has collided with reality.

Most of the estimated 135,000 families still in camps will not be offered a shelter arrangement. Some camps will become “formalized’’ as permanent slums.

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The displaced will mostly have to fend for themselves.

Why not allow the residents to remain in Champ de Mars? Because the tarp shanties are overcrowded fire hazards that will blow down in the first hurricane, the Haitian government says. There is no running water or electricity. There is another reason, too: The Champ de Mars camp is an embarrassment.

Two years after the world’s worst urban disaster in a generation, about 515,000 Haitians linger in 707 camps scattered across the capital. Although it is not unusual for refugees fleeing conflict to be stuck in camps for years, as Somali refugees in Kenya or Palestinians in Lebanon have been, rarely are people displaced by natural disasters for so long, and almost never in a camp in the central plaza of a capital city.

Since the population in the earthquake camps in Haiti peaked at 1.5 million in July 2010, more than a million displaced persons have abandoned the tent cities. The vast majority left on their own, with little or no help. Some were shoved.

A report by Nicole Phillips of the University of San Francisco School of Law found it likely that many of the displaced persons who had left tent cities are now living in conditions worse than those found in the camps.

The International Organization for Migration counts 63,109 individuals forcibly evicted from 134 camps in the past two years and says 100,000 others are vulnerable to the same fate.

In Port-au-Prince, 84,866 buildings have been marked with red paint, indicating they should be demolished. Nonetheless, more than half of the red-marked houses are inhabited, with little or no repair, as people desperate for shelter live in the ruins.

Inspectors with the Ministry of Public Works tagged 120,000 homes with yellow paint, meaning the structures are damaged but repairable. International donors, including the US government, have helped renovate just 6,000 homes in two years.

At the current pace, it will take another decade to bring the yellow houses up to minimal safety codes.

“I cannot believe that we have lived here on the ground for two years,’’ said Williamson Aristide, who once worked at the airport handling cargo freight but has not had a real job since the earthquake Jan. 12, 2010.

Asked about the prospects of finding a place to live, Aristide said: “There is not a word for it. It is very, very, very hard. There is nothing to rent.’’

The ambitious plans of last year - with seaside promenades built of earthquake rubble and boulevards lined with three-story mixed-use commercial and residential developments - gather dust on government shelves, relics of a more naive era.

The “exemplar communities’’ of foam homes, geodesic domes, and innovative cabanas designed by world-class architects, promoted by the “Build Back Better’’ mantra of Bill Clinton and his Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, are on hold.

All the while, the camps are quickly deteriorating. As of last month, there was no committed funding for emptying camp latrines. Almost all health services have been removed.

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