Shelter: Tent City

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Photo by Fred W. Baker III.

Four years after the January 2010 earthquake that reduced Port au Prince to rubble and claimed more than 200,000 lives, the tarps that cover the makeshift homes of thousands made homeless by the earthquake have faded. Blue tarps from UNICEF. White tarps from USAID, that say “From the American People.” In the months after the earthquake checkered seas of blue and white took over city parks, squares, and the hills around the city. The homeless population living in the earthquake camps, most without water, electricity, or waste disposal, peaked at 1.5 million in July 2010, four months before the arrival of the cholera epidemic that has killed more than 6,000 people so far.

And though the tarps are now bleached by the sun and pounded by hurricanes, thousands of Haitians continue to rely on them for shelter, patching and adjusting them to cover gaps between corrugated metal and flimsy wooden walls. As months have stretched into years, and promises by government officials and aid groups languish unfulfilled, many have decided not to wait, staking more permanent claims by pouring concrete foundations, shoring up walls with cinder blocks, and stringing barbed wire fence. They’ve set up schools, churches, and basketball courts. Children’s voices reciting times tables or singing the alphabet, high and earnest, mingle with the sounds of cooking and construction.

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Last fall, hungry for foreign investment and eager to demonstrate reconstruction progress, the Haitian government announced that the population living in temporary camps had fallen below 200,000; three major settlements, home to more than 50,000 people, were excluded from the count. Now deemed squatters, residents face violent evictions by Haitian police. Shelters are crushed to jagged angles under tractors. Those who resist are shot at, hit with police batons, and sprayed with tear gas. This latest round of evictions was not the first: Amnesty International has estimated that more than 16,000 families have been evicted from camps since July 2010.

Meanwhile, many of the government-built houses, sharp-edged in pastel greens and yellows and pinks, sit baking empty in rows under the tropical sun, too expensive for most of the hurricane victims. Some are inhabited by the families of government employees, or by those who have simply broken down the doors and set up house.

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