Haiti Camp: Feeding Multitudes Requires a Plan

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By Lane Hartill

A lot of people around the world are asking the same question about Haiti: What’s taking so long for food to get out.

Spend a morning at the Petionville golf course, and you’ll have your answer.

Haiti food

A volunteer carries a 100-pound bag of lentils provided by U.S. Agency for International Development to Catholic Relief Services. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

The once-swanky country club in Port-au-Prince is now home to some 50,000 displaced Haitians. The camp is already taking on the trappings of a community: In one section of the camp, you can charge your cell phone, call Europe at a phone kiosk, buy vegetables, and get your haircut. Cardboard street signs are even popping up on some trash-strewn paths. The place is so packed you have to turn sideways to get to some tents.

Behind the flowered bedsheets that serve as walls, you see shadows moving, hear babies crying and smell the akra—the flat cakes made of flour and spices that Haitians love—sizzling in oil, . The sun feels like it’s closer here, and most people lay in the shade, fanning themselves, trying to figure out how to make it through another day.

Haiti crowd

A CRS volunteer distributes tickets throughout the Petionville displaced persons camp, where CRS is responding to the needs of earthquake survivors. Families will be able to redeem the tickets for bulgur, vegetable oil, and lentils that should last them about two weeks. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

Most people keep their eyes averted from one of the hills at the camp. That’s where some Haitians bathe in their underpants, hiding behind some scrawny trees that offer only a suggestion of privacy.

But when veteran CRS workers go to the camp, they see problems—and solutions. One of the biggest issues: Tens of thousands of people living in shelters made of bedsheets tied to sticks. In a country that has been denuded of trees, lumber is a valuable commodity. Residents have used machetes to hack off limbs of some of the trees lining the fairways. All that’s left are trunks that look chewed and frayed. The rolling fairways are balding, with the brittle yellow grass getting further ground into the dust every day.

When the rainy season starts in late March, the place is going to turn into a Haitian version of Woodstock: thousands of people living in mud. And that has a lot of people worried.

CRS has already ordered plastic sheeting to improve the shelter of thousands. There are plans to start cash-for-work programs. Haitians who lost their homes will start clearing rubble in their former neighborhoods to make space for new, longer-lasting temporary shelters.

Haiti supply

A volunteer fills cans with lentils provided by USAID to Catholic Relief Services. CRS is bringing in more than 90 tons of food such as lentils, bulgur and vegetable oil to distribute to more that 50,000 displaced Haitians living on the Petionville golf course. Photo by Lane Hartill/CRS

But the urgent need right now is food. Close to 200 tons of food will be brought into the Petionville Club and stored on the tennis courts. The food, from U.S. Agency for International Development Food For Peace, is packed in 100-pound sacks. It’s offloaded from 10-ton trucks and boosted onto the heads of Haitians one sack at a time. From there, the food is divided up by volunteers sitting on the ground measuring out rations for each family. It’s then repackaged and prepared for distribution. But getting that food to all the people in the camp is the challenge.

When CRS distributed more than 1,000 food kits a few days ago at the golf course, thousands of Haitians thronged to the site, pushing against the rope cordon, wanting food. Thanks to Haitian volunteers, CRS staff and the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne, order was maintained, but the frustration was palpable. It could have turned unruly quickly with that many hungry people. CRS knows from years of experience you can’t just back up a truck full of food and fling open the doors. There needs to be structure to keep people safe.

That’s why a group of CRS and Caritas staff and volunteers have fanned out in the camp. Some have cans of spray paint, others hold on to about 100 yards of blue rope. A handful of volunteers circles a collection of makeshift tents with the rope. Every shelter in that circle will receive a ticket. Then an X will be painted on the shelter.

There are so many shelters, so close together, the volunteers want to make sure they reach everyone.

Then the team goes tent to tent, pulling back curtains and asking who is the head of the house, then giving them a voucher for two weeks worth of food, stuff like vegetable oil, lentils and bulgur.

It’s a rudimentary method, but it works.

And at this point, that’s what’s most important: Finding something that works.

Lane Hartill is CRS regional information officer for central and western Africa, reporting from Haiti

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4 Responses to “Haiti Camp: Feeding Multitudes Requires a Plan”

  1. Cullen Larson Says:

    Something for the journey…..from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 6:

    When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
    By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already very late.
    Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
    He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?”
    He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out they said, “Five loaves and two fish.”
    So he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass.
    The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties.
    Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to (his) disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all.
    They all ate and were satisfied.
    And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish.

  2. Margie Allen Says:

    Dear CRS,

    I want to go to work in Haiti. I speak French, have been a writer, am an excellent organizer, and want to help!

    Are you looking for people to help the relief effort in Haiti? If not, do you know of one?
    If you respond, I will send you my resume.

    Thank you,
    Margie Allen

  3. michaelmfc Says:

    As we give our money to disaster relief it is important to realize that after the news cameras are gone there will still be a tremendous amount of suffering and misery to deal with. The long term effects of a severe earthquake on a poor nation is more pronounced. The country will have to be rebuilt. They will need infrastructure as well as homes, hospitals and schools. There will be hundreds of thousands who are without shelter and who are forced to live in close quarters in unsanitary conditions which will spread disease. Orphans will need to be taken care of, and there will be severe mental health problems that will linger. All of these issues will need attention and financial assistance even after the celebrities have moved on to the next great cause. The work of helping Haiti will once again be done in obscurity without press coverage. There will be no more outpourings of love and sympathy because the public’s attention will be diverted elsewhere. However, there will still be many dedicated organizations who will stay behind and do the difficult unglamorous work of fighting poverty under the most trying conditions. These are organizations we need to continue to support with donations. By providing them with a steady stream of funds we can allow them to operate at their full capacity. This will enable them to slowly improve the living conditions of the Haitian people. But it takes money…a lot of money, month after month and year after year. Dramatic improvement does not happen overnight. It requires a long-term financial commitment on our part. We must have the resolve and the passion to consistently try to improve the lives of those who are suffering.

  4. Maria Josephine Wijiastuti Says:

    Keep up the good work… I hardly imagine the condition in Haiti now. It’s worse than West Sumatra. Building back better!

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