Tired Of Waiting, Haitians Build Their Own Homes

Housing remains one of the biggest challenges facing Haiti as it tries to recover from the 7.0 earthquake that destroyed much of the capital last year.

As the one-year anniversary approaches, more than 1 million people remain in tents and makeshift huts in encampments around Port-au-Prince.

But recently, thousands of people who've grown tired of the camps have started building houses in Cabaret, fields just north of the capital.

Pierre Jean Lefen, 18, a resident of Cabaret i i

Pierre Jean Lefen, 18, is among the thousands of Haitians who have built their own homes in the scrubby hills north of Port-au-Prince in an area known as Cabaret. Residents pay Lefen roughly 25 cents to fill up their buckets from a well that is the only nearby source of water. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
Pierre Jean Lefen, 18, a resident of Cabaret

Pierre Jean Lefen, 18, is among the thousands of Haitians who have built their own homes in the scrubby hills north of Port-au-Prince in an area known as Cabaret. Residents pay Lefen roughly 25 cents to fill up their buckets from a well that is the only nearby source of water.

David Gilkey/NPR

Port-Au-Prince's Booming Frontier

Cabaret is a place where a guy can grab a piece of land, put down a shack, start a new life. Over the past six months, thousands of squatters have staked out plots in Cabaret on what used to be scrubby, vacant hills.

There are no proper roads, just tracks worn in the dirt and paths that wind amid haphazardly fenced plots. There are so many new residents that different parts of the encampment already have different names: Jerusalem, Canaan, Bacca Zuwe.

At a section called "Area B," there's a single hand pump for water. On a recent day, a gaggle of children had gathered with buckets, waiting for the well manager to show up with the key.

Pierre Jean Lefen, 18, is the man with the key. He says the water is locked because this is a private, not public, well. In fact it's the only nearby well. The kids each pay him roughly 25 cents to fill their plastic 5-gallon buckets.

Lefen says this area is booming but there are no government services, no electricity, no toilets and no schools.

"None of us around here can go to school. We don't have any way to go to school. Those kids you can see here. They stay all day long without being able to go to school," he says.

There are, however, small businesses popping up on the hillside among the huts — small grocery stores, a dentist's office.

A Year Of Challenges: Haiti After The Quake

Isdres Baptiste, 30, runs a combination barbershop and photo studio out of a red sheet metal shack.

Before the earthquake, Baptiste says, his shop was on Delmas 31, a bustling street in the capital. On weekends, he says he was always busy with people getting their hair cut and ordering photos for birthdays or other celebrations. Baptiste says the problem now is that the people don't have any money. Many lost their jobs. Others are scraping just to get by. He says photos and haircuts are now considered luxuries.

Haitians Flocking, Putting Down Roots

The growing encampments on the hillsides of Cabaret are different from the overly crowded camps in the heart of Port-au-Prince. The shacks are spread out. People have planted vegetable gardens. Pigs root around in the dust. There's room to keep flocks of chickens.

However, Cabaret lies between a line of steep, denuded mountains and the ocean. In the run-up to Hurricane Tomas in November, aid agencies tried to evacuate 8,000 people from a nearby tent encampment out of fear that it could be flooded in a major storm.

But concerns about floods and hurricanes aren't keeping people away. The Rev. Amos Noel has erected a small open-air church in the area.

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"Day by day, you see a new family move in. For example today, there was a truck that was pouring sand and stone for a house to be built. Every single day, you see a new family, new face come to live here," Noel says.

If space is open, someone takes it. Most of the houses are simple huts, but some people are building solid, cinder block buildings. One even has a garage.

Land Title Issues No Deterrent In Cabaret

For decades, Haiti has had a chaotic land title system. After the quake, with so many government buildings destroyed, it's even less clear who owns what.

Aid groups say one of the biggest obstacles to building new or even transitional housing is the lack of clear land title in the Haitian capital. In Cabaret, this isn't yet a problem because the squatters are simply ignoring the issue. Noel says this is government land. Others say it was abandoned.

What is clear is that thousands of Haitians have given up on waiting for the government or aid groups to move them out of the overcrowded camps in Port-au-Prince.

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