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World Habitat Day: A Day to Recognize the Basic Need for Shelter

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In the waning hours of a January afternoon, as children played after school and parents prepared to end their work days, Haiti was suddenly shaken forever by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake. Lives were lost, communities destroyed. An already-challenged country instantly faced even greater odds. Nearly three years later, some progress has been made, but the fact that -- unacceptably -- hundreds of thousands of people still live in tents and makeshift shelters should shake the world community.

Imagine your daily life but with the added burdens of heightened exposure to the risk of disease, inadequate protection from the world around you and the threat of repeat displacement. Hurricane season only reminds us how precarious life is for families who still find themselves in this situation.

There is no easy fix, as Haiti's complex history has undoubtedly shown. How much more so after such a devastating natural disaster has thrown the country's communities into crisis?

Decent housing is a fundamental building block of sorely needed progress and stability in communities around the world. This is true anywhere, but comes into even sharper relief in areas devastated by disaster and conflict. In Haiti's case, there are deep underlying issues. A lack of access to land tenure has often complicated and thwarted the rebuilding process. The all-important seed of community, the seed that will blossom into a renewed Haiti, can only grow if it is allowed to take root.

Haiti's resurgence absolutely depends on families and neighbors working together to reclaim all that has been lost. The global community, so richly blessed with ready access to ample resources, is morally obligated to help them.

As one example, last year, my wife Rosalynn and I joined nearly 500 Habitat for Humanity volunteers from around the world to help build 100 homes in the community of Santo near Léogâne, a city close to the earthquake's epicenter. We return in November to help build 100 more.

Our goal in building these many homes is the establishment of one community, and our approach has many facets. Habitat's efforts with local government have helped to identify families in need and to locate and acquire available land for house construction. International donors have contributed directly to Habitat's recovery work and building in Haiti. Habitat has provided job opportunities to more than 700 Haitians over the last two and a half years, 280 in Santo alone.

Most importantly, the families with whom we partner help build their own houses and help create the community in which they now reside. And that community has begun to take root. Sturdy, colorfully painted houses form a neighborhood. Formerly crowded together in impromptu communities, neighbors casually gather to visit. Small home businesses have sprung up. Families now till the ground -- instead of sleeping on it -- and grow fruits and vegetables in their gardens.

Places like Santo -- where the international community marshals support and comes together to work alongside local families -- are the hope of Haiti. They are the hope of any place where decent housing is needed, where the under-resourced seek opportunities, where families look for security. Each of us must play a part in building that hope, and decent homes and flourishing communities are the best possible place to start.

Today, World Habitat Day, is a day to recognize the basic need for adequate shelter in a world where it is lacking for so many -- a day for grassroots action, starting in your community. As we reflect on the state of towns and cities everywhere and the right of everyone to decent housing, I challenge you to reflect on the actions that you can take. In your own community, in communities around the globe and in places such as Haiti that so desperately need our assistance. I believe, as does Habitat, in the idea of many homes, one community. The act of building, of renovating, of coming together cements a bond not easily undone. When we bring together available resources, take decisive action and advocate for lasting change, we build the kind of stability, that Haiti -- and we -- need.