According to the latest UN figures, 1.3 million Haitians have been left homeless by the quake. Some of these Haitians are no longer sleeping in abandoned cars but in flimsy structures fashioned from plastic sheeting and salvaged wood--a minuscule improvement, to say the least. Over 218,000 survivors are living in makeshift camps in Port-au-Prince at immediate grave risk of flooding and landslides.
In the minds of too many of the privileged and the powerful, post-earthquake Haitian society has become little more than a faded photograph. Survivors' shelter and medical needs are no longer in focus or in vogue and too many relief efforts are being shortchanged. Virtually nothing is being done by either the Haitian government or international actors for those who will be flooded out of their squatter camps. Large-scale food aid--often distributed inequitably--has nearly run dry.
This neglect is a familiar story. As former Manhattan Borough President, I am reminded of when modern homelessness first emerged in New York City in the late 1970s. Though the circumstances were wildly different from post-earthquake trauma, the city's rudimentary emergency services routinely failed to provide shelter to the rapidly growing number of homeless people--people like Robert Callahan, a homeless man who'd been forced to sleep on the streets of the Bowery. Countless homeless New Yorkers died or suffered injuries. In 1979, Robert Hayes, co-founder of the Coalition for the Homeless and a volunteer lawyer with the Legal Aid Society, brought a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Robert Callahan and other homeless men. Hayes argued that under Article XVII of the New York State Constitution, people in New York had a legal right to shelter. In a landmark decision, on December 5, 1979, the New York State Supreme Court ordered that the City and State provide shelter for the homeless. Sadly, for Callahan, the autumn before the consent decree bearing his name was signed, he died while sleeping on the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Hayes's victory symbolizes a kind of tenacity and perseverance that I think too few are willing to emulate, particularly in the face of disasters that are not in our own backyards. What would it take to make emergency shelter a right not a privilege for Haitians? Why would it take to ensure that stricter building codes are enforced so that the consequences of future disasters are not exacerbated by poor housing structures?
To put it bluntly, if Haiti were a country populated by white middle-class people, surely we would be responding differently and with greater haste. Surely we would not allow white English speakers to live in such dismal conditions. We would not expect Haitians to fend for themselves in rubble after emergency relief caravans have all but disappeared.
I continue to be disheartened by descriptions of Haitian suffering and remain firmly convinced that the only way to sustainably advance the quality of life in Haiti is for U.S. policy makers and the Haitian government to work in partnership with local, grassroots Haitian organizations. Organizations like Groundswell International are working to strengthen local leadership and peasant organizations through a practical, "learning by doing" approach to address basic needs. Support is provided to community groups to identify priority issues, start small and experiment to find workable solutions. Groundswell is supporting nine community-based organizations, which are responding to the needs of rural communities who are absorbing a large influx of internally displaced, homeless earthquake victims and employing them to support food production capacity for the upcoming agricultural season.
Emergency and long-term aid alone is not enough. What's needed are policies to ensure that food aid and housing will benefit today's Haitian people and the generations that will follow. Moreover, it's imperative that we create development policy that fully involves Haitians in, as Bill Clinton describes it, "building back better."