Look behind me. You'll see houses on top of houses. Keep looking and a pattern emerges. This is how a lot of people live in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
You want to build a new home in the crowded capital city? You have to build vertically. It’s not safe and it isn’t scalable. I don’t think you want to live in a house like this when another earthquake strikes. And I'm betting you don't want your donation going to build houses like this either. There are a lot of ways to get Haitian families into safe and improved housing, but building new, unsafe houses in the congested city simply isn't one of them.
When the earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, it damaged or destroyed nearly 300,000 houses and left about 1.5 million people homeless. Donations poured in from around the world to keep displaced people alive. In the first six months alone, the American Red Cross spent $148.5 million of these donations to do just that: providing medical care, food, water, blankets, hygiene items, tarps, and more to Haitians in makeshift camps and on the streets.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, everyone hoped to build new homes for those 1.5 million people. Sounds nice, right? Of course it does. But Port-au-Prince’s hilly geography, lack of available space, land tenure issues, and logistical challenges made that extremely expensive, if not impossible.
“Land tenure” seems like such a nebulous phrase, but it posed a very real challenge to many Haitians looking for a place to live after the quake. Securing property rights for land that was available was a bureaucratic nightmare. (It still is: check out this New Yorker article, Who Owns What, in Haiti?) So the American Red Cross alongside organizations we funded, moved more than 30,000 people into “transitional” shelters—named such because they are designed to be disassembled and reassembled in the event that families face land tenure issues in the future. A good solution for some people, but there still wasn’t enough available land to do this for everyone. We also built six new homes, alongside the Fuller Center for Housing for $48,000. It was a good pilot project, but not scalable for the number of people still left homeless.
All these challenges made it abundantly clear that repairing and expanding existing homes in Port-au-Prince—rather than building new ones—was the key to getting safe roofs over Haitians’ heads. So the American Red Cross invests in things like removing rubble from still-standing houses and helping owners expand their structures. Engineers ensure that people have the tools and knowledge to repair and expand those houses safely, so they can better withstand earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. In exchange for the American Red Cross’s investment, thousands of these owners provide free lodging to renters for a year. These are the types of housing solutions that get people into safer living conditions (132,000 to date. See this breakdown for details).
All this means that if you walk around neighborhoods where the American Red Cross is working—Campeche, for example—you probably won’t see beautifully painted houses with perfect ceramic floors. You won’t see “new homes” constructed by the American Red Cross. But if you look closely, what you will see is durable homes. You’ll pass by masons and foremen we trained in 6-week courses, mixing cement that will withstand an earthquake. And you will run into new renters, like Junior, who finally moved out of a camp because donations to the American Red Cross increased the rental stock in Port-au-Prince.
You know what else you’ll see in Campeche, thanks to donations to the American Red Cross? All the things that go beyond houses and make it a place where people want to live: streetlights, access to water, walkways, small businesses. In Campeche—and in neighborhoods all around Haiti—it’s not all about houses. Instead, it’s about making neighborhoods healthy, safe, and economically feasible places to live. For the American Red Cross, that means supporting hospitals and clinics (eight of them, to date). Building the country’s first-ever wastewater treatment plant. Training community members in first aid and search-and-rescue techniques. Investing in entrepreneurs. Fighting gender-based violence. Distributing mosquito nets and condoms. Combatting cholera. These are the things the community members themselves identify as priorities. I could go on about all the other ways that donations to the American Red Cross are making communities in Haiti safer, healthier, and more resilient. Instead, check out the breakdown in this 5-year report.
Before you stop reading, I want to ask you to peek at that photo of me again. Or rather, focus on the background. Sometimes, we have to look twice at a photo (or an issue) before we can see it clearly.