How 360,000 Haitians Wound Up Living in Empty Lots and Crowded Schools

How 360,000 Haitians Wound Up Living in Empty Lots and Crowded Schools

By Oghale May8,2024

Hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti are on the run from rampant gang violence and have abandoned their homes, a worsening humanitarian crisis that the United Nations describes as “cataclysmic.”

Masses of homeless families dodging gang members who burned down their houses and killed their neighbors have taken over dozens of schools, churches and even government buildings. Many places have no running water, flushing toilets or garbage pickup.

The lucky ones are sleeping on a friend’s sofa.

“There are kids at my camp who have no parents,” said Agenithe Jean, 39, who left her home in the Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, in August for an improvised camp in an empty lot about six miles away. “We need latrines. We need somewhere to go.”

At least 360,000 people — more than half of them in the capital or surrounding neighborhoods — have fled their homes in Haiti over the past year, and that number of internally displaced people is expected in the coming months to surpass 400,000, according to the U.N.’s International Office for Migration.

Hundreds are unaccompanied children, including orphans and others separated from their parents in the chaos.

As hurricane season nears, humanitarian groups and Haiti’s disaster response office are racing to figure out how to address the swelling crowds living in improvised shelters in a capital overrun by gangs with a barely functioning national government.

About 90,000 people are living in those sites, and roughly the same number deserted Port-au-Prince in March, according to the United Nations and aid groups, many for other parts of the Haiti, an exodus straining safer cities ill-prepared for an increased demand on water, food and schools.

A United Nations drive to raise $674 million to address the growing list of basic needs in Haiti has raised just 16 percent of the goal. The United States provided $69.5 million of the $107 million raised so far.

The competition for attention and resources can be eclipsed by crises around the world, including in Gaza, Ukraine and Sudan, aid groups said. The response has paled in comparison to the massive international effort following Haiti’s cataclysmic 2010 earthquake, when countries and aid organizations sent billions in aid.

“All of us are going pretty much after the same donors,” said Abdoulaye Sawadogo, head of the U.N. office in charge of humanitarian assistance in Haiti.

The Haitian government agency whose job it is to help refugees normally focuses on natural disasters, not a disaster caused by widespread gang violence.

“You can track the cyclone. After an earthquake, you can find shelter,” said Emmanuel Pierre, the operations director for the Directorate for Civil Protection, Haiti’s emergency management agency. “Now the problem is a social hazard.”

In the three years since the assassination of the Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, Haiti’s gangs have expanded their territory and increased their violence.

Gang leaders achieved a main goal — the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry — and now claim they want to end poverty as well as a corrupt system run by elites. But they also want amnesty for their crimes and to prevent an international security force led by Kenya from deploying.

In the first three months of this year, about 2,500 people were killed or injured as a result of gang violence — a 53 percent increase compared to the previous three months, according to the United Nations

Things took a dire turn in late February, when, in a quest to oust the prime minister, rival gangs joined forces to attack police stations, jails and the airport. Entire Port-au-Prince neighborhoods emptied out as gangs took over.

People who found safe spaces were repeatedly driven out as time and again they found themselves in mortal peril.

In some ways, Ms. Jean got lucky that August day when a gang took over her Carrefour-Feuilles neighborhood amid a reign of gunfire. When she raced toward her rented house in search of her family, running past bodies on the ground and injured people covered in blood, she stumbled into her four children. All five got out with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Since that August day, Ms. Jean has lived in an improvised tent camp, which she shares with a few dozen others, in the Croix Desprez neighborhood. Unable to work because conditions are too dangerous, but with her children safe with relatives in the countryside, she showers at friends’ houses and has received cash and food from humanitarian groups.

“I don’t think I can ever go back,” she said. “In Port-au-Prince, nowhere is safe.”

The U.N.’s International Office for Migration started tracking the internally displaced in November and found that about 70 percent were staying with friends or relatives. Now 60 percent are in one of 86 homeless sites, as people run out of safe places to take cover, said Daniele Febei, the head of emergency operations for the U.N.’s migration office in Haiti.

More than 180,000 — about half the homeless — are children, he said. Nearly three dozen schools in the Port-au-Prince area were forced to close to make room for the displaced. The gangs forced people from their homes so they could use the neighborhoods as bases of operations to stash kidnapping victims, he said.

About half the homeless are receiving services, U.N. agencies said, though the United Nations Children’s Fund, which focuses on the needs of children in developing countries, has suspended water delivery on some days because it was too dangerous to traverse the streets.

While millions of liters of water have been delivered, about 30,000 people living in homeless sites are not getting any, mainly because of a lack of financing, UNICEF said. Instead, they have to buy small bags and buckets of often unhealthy water.

“The response has not been the best,” Mr. Febei said, noting that the violence drove out many nonprofit aid organizations. “Let’s say that 40 percent of sites have a system to collect waste. What does that mean? Sixty percent doesn’t.”

Much of the assistance being provided by organizations, including hundreds of thousands of meals from the World Food Program, is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has allocated about $171 million in humanitarian aid since October, including an allocation of $58 million in March.

“That’s not enough,” said Marcia Wong, a top official at the agency’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance. “Obviously.”

“A certain percentage of people in Haiti are not being reached the way they deserve to be,” she added. “The scale of services and response is not what it needs to be.”

Many organizations are shifting gears toward providing cash payments to heads of households and those who host the displaced, as it becomes harder to provide direct services, particularly to those on the move.

“So many people are living in different small tents,” said Laurent Uwumuremyi, Haiti director for Mercy Corps, a U.S.-financed aid organization, which helped The New York Times arrange telephone interviews with internal refugees. “Looking at the current situation and how it has been evolving since the end of February, there is no hope that the situation is going to change soon.”

Many people have scattered throughout the country to rural communities they originally hailed from, he said.

The strain is being felt in southern cities where buses full of Port-au-Prince residents arrive regularly. In February and March, nearly 40,000 people arrived in Haiti’s South Department, which includes Les Cayes and Jacmel, said Pierre Marie Boutin, the civil protection agency’s representative in Les Cayes.

“They came in public transport with all their belongings, like everything you find in a house — beds, mattresses, household furniture,” Mr. Boutin said, adding that the agency’s offices and storage depots have all been looted by gangs.

“In one month it will be hurricane season, and we are not ready,” he said. “In the event of a catastrophe, we are at zero. We have nothing, and we will really be in deep trouble.”

Yvon Latigue, 42, who has two daughters, left Carrefour-Feuilles late last year when gangs set a neighbor’s house on fire, which also burned down his home.

“We didn’t have time to save anything,” he said. “We were saving our lives.”

The family of four slept in a church at first and then stayed with in-laws in Mirebalais, a city about 40 miles north of the capital, but the imposition caused a strain so they returned to Port-au-Prince. They are making do in a makeshift tent where their house once stood.

The children cannot attend their local school because gang violence led it to close.

“One of them, when she talks to me, she says: ‘Daddy, I’m scared. I’m scared, because of all of this shooting,’” he said. “And the other one, sometimes she asks me, ‘Daddy, when am I going back to school?’”

Tuesday, he tells her.

“After a few days, she’ll say, ‘Daddy, is it Tuesday yet?’ I say no,” Mr. Latigue said. “I don’t have another choice. I have to lie to her.”

Andre Paultre contributed reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and David C. Adams from Miami.

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