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Haiti’s Homeless Wary Of Efforts To Relocate Them

The Haitian government says it hopes to proceed with plans to move hundreds of thousands of earthquake survivors from makeshift settlements in Port-au-Prince to new camps in outlying areas where they can receive food, shelter and medical aid.

A woman stands near a makeshift refugee camp near downtown Port-au-Prince on Jan. 16. The government is now planning to relocate many survivors to formal camps on the outskirts of town.
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Above: A woman stands near a makeshift refugee camp near downtown Port-au-Prince on Jan. 16. The government is now planning to relocate many survivors to formal camps on the outskirts of town.

Many people who are now living on the streets say they would be willing to go, but aid officials warn that there are serious risks to establishing such camps.

Jacques Geson and 10 members of his family have been sleeping in the dust for two weeks. They are packed side by side with hundreds of other earthquake survivors in the park across from Haiti's ruined National Palace.

Geson and his family say they have heard of the Haitian government's plan to move them to camps outside the city, but they have many questions.

I know we have huge needs here, Geson says. But if authorities move the survivors somewhere else, he adds, they will need a roof, food and money.

Geson, 63, is mistrustful of the promises of his government and the international aid mission.

The only humanitarian aid the survivors living across from the National Palace say they have received so far is water.

The plight of people like Geson and his family is one of the things that makes the idea of moving survivors out of the capital seem appealing.

Officials estimate that there are more than 650 makeshift settlements scattered throughout the city, and some say it would be far simpler to provide food, medical services and safety in camps organized and run by relief agencies.

Rick Bauer, an engineering adviser for the British-based charity Oxfam, says it is easy to deliver aid to camp settings.

"They're all right there. We call it the 'truck and chuck' syndrome. You just fill up your truck, and you chuck it out the other side to give it to people, and you say it's a job done," Bauer says.

One idea being discussed, he says, would put thousands of survivors in a two-phase camp.

One part of the camp would be temporary, with families in tents. Residents would be hired to help build permanent housing in another part, providing a source of income for the survivors.

"Sounds good in principle, but in reality it's a lot more difficult and complicated to put into practice," Bauer says.

That is especially so in Haiti, he says, where people's normal social organization in neighborhoods has been so severely disrupted.

He says there is a risk that violent Haitian gangs could take control of the camps, as they did in the slums of Port-au-Prince just a few years ago.

Bauer says that in addition to planning for relocating people, the aid mission ought to be thinking about how it can work with survivors to keep them in their neighborhoods.

He says one rough estimate is that 70 percent of people in some areas could, with some money and technical assistance, repair their houses well enough to make at least one or two rooms safe to live in for the next six months or so.

That could buy time, Bauer says, to help neighborhood groups restore the life of the city.

Returning to a damaged house doesn't sound appealing to many in Port-au-Prince, especially when aftershocks rumble nearly every day.

But Augustin Ernst, living with his family of four in the camp by the National Palace, says moving away from the city would be hard, too.

We don't want to stay here, he says, waving at the camp, but we have no choice. I was born here, and this is what I know, he says, adding that he doesn't want to go anywhere else.

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