RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Let's get an update now on a story we're following. Haiti's government has made clear that even under the most optimistic scenarios, many people who lost their homes in the recent earthquake will be living in tents for years to come. Adam Davidson with NPR's Planet Money team visited a tent city in Port-au-Prince. He sent us this snapshot of the economic activity he found there.
ADAM DAVIDSON: I expected to see people standing in line, waiting for food rations, and I don't really know what else sleeping? So I was really surprised when I went to the biggest tent city in Port-au-Prince. It's on what had been a nine-hole golf course. I went into one tent and found a full-functioning beauty salon.
Yolene Samard was doing a customer's toenails. I asked her why there's a salon in a displaced person's camp. She did not understand the question.
Ms. YOLENE SAMARD (Cosmetologist): (Through translator) One's not supposed to walk around dirty. You know, it don't matter which condition your life is, you know, you still have to, you know, keep yourself, you know, clean and make yourself look good.
DAVIDSON: She has a big, square tent made out of tarps and bedsheets. She and her husband sleep in one half; the other half is the salon. It's clean and bright. There's a shelf stacked with beauty supplies, three customers are waiting on a bench. She tried to make it look like the salon she used to have, which was destroyed.
Most people in the camp only have whatever money they had in their pockets the day of the earthquake. That means few people can afford what used to be her most profitable service: hair treatments.
Instead, she mostly does pedicures. They're cheap. And, she says, the camp is so dirty that more women want pedicures now.
So does that mean a lot more business than before the earthquake?
Ms. SAMARD: (Through translator) Well, it's not only me that has a salon. There's a lot of different salons here.
DAVIDSON: So it turns out there's actually more competition in the camp than she used to have. In this tent city, where nearly 50,000 people live, there is no way to make money except selling goods or services right here. So a school teacher might open a candy stand. A government accountant might sell spices or batteries.
This is mixed news for Yolene. There's more competition, but also more choices. Every day she goes shopping, tent to tent.
Ms. SAMARD: (Through translator) We buy all kinds of food, because up there all they give is this this grain, it's like wheat grain and oil. So, you know, one cannot live on this wheat alone, 'cause sometimes you have to try different tastes, so we basically buy all kinds of things here, all kind of food.
DAVIDSON: Give me an example. Give me things you've bought recently.
Ms. SAMARD: (Through translator) Fake hair, yeah, you find rice, beans, fake nails.
DAVIDSON: Not only rice, beans, and fake nails. I saw people selling children's toys, stereos, computers. And then I met Amilkar Gabriel, who saw a chance for business synergy. He noticed parents complaining about running out of juice on their cell phones and kids with nothing to do. So he bought a generator and a small TV and turned his 6-by-10-foot tent into a movie theater and cell phone charging station. He was hoping to get the equivalent of 25 cents to charge a phone and another 25 cents for each kid to watch a movie.
Mr. AMILKAR GABRIEL: (Through translator) Well, I know it's slow, you know, because not everybody can afford to pay 10 gourdes to come watch movies. But what we do sometimes is like for the people that come to charge the phones, we sort of like work a deal with them. If they have kids, you know, they can bring the kids to watch the movie for free.
DAVIDSON: He's losing money so far. Most nights he doesn't make enough to pay for the gas the generator uses. But he's going to keep at it, he says. He's going to keep trying to build this business. After all, he's pretty sure he'll be living in a tent city for a long time.
Adam Davidson, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: Adam's report is part of a special series on Haiti produced in partnership with PBS Frontline. You can watch a video version of this story online at pbs.org/frontline.
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