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Putting Shelter Materials to Use in Haiti

By David Snyder

Reaching into a wrinkled plastic bag in the tiny space of his temporary home, Constant Pierre Dephane gathers what tools he has and gets to work quickly, animated by today's addition to his few possessions. One of more than 40,000 residents here in the sprawling Petionville camp in Port-au-Prince, Constant plans to make good use of the tarps and other materials he received today in a Catholic Relief Services shelter kit distribution. As he works, he explains how he came to be at Petionville.

Constant builds a shelter

Constant Pierre Dephane builds a shelter in the Petionville camp after a shelter kit distribution, using tarps, rope and nails provided by CRS. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

"I came back here 16 days ago," Constant says. "This was the only place I knew because I have relatives here."

When a massive earthquake struck Port-au-Prince on January 12, Constant and his family were at home in the city. Rushing out into the streets, they watched their house collapse, leaving them with nothing, Constant says. But with his own family safe, his thoughts turned to his elderly parents who live in the town of Aux Cayes, about five hours by public transport outside of Port-au-Prince. The next day, he and his family went there. They stayed for over a month to care for his parents.

But with no chance for work in the small town, Constant says he was drawn back to Port-au-Prince, even knowing he had nothing to return to. Salvaging what scraps he could from his former home, he led his family to a clear patch of earth on what used to be the Petionville golf course, and what today has become the largest camp for displaced people in the city. Erecting a shelter of bedsheets and a piece of corrugated metal, Constant, his wife, his sister and his niece crowded into a tiny 6-by-8-foot space. The shelter was far from adequate.

"During the rain, the whole family stays up to catch water in buckets," Constant says. "We just try to keep the rain out."

Having arrived late to the camp, Constant and his family missed the large-scale shelter distributions carried out by CRS in the weeks after the quake, when CRS reached more than 6,500 families in the camp with critical shelter materials. Bagged at a CRS warehouse in the city and then distributed to those most in need, each shelter kit contains two plastic tarps, a length of rope, 80 nails and a tire inner tube, which is cut up and used to keep the nails from tearing the precious tarps.

When CRS distributed a second round of shelter kits in the camp, Constant was among the first on the list to receive one. He put it to use within minutes of returning home to his makeshift shelter.

"I found nails, rope and tarps," Constant says. "I will make the shelter bigger so we have more space."

Like many crowding Haiti's temporary camps, Constant is industrious and creative. Over the next two hours, with the help of a friend, he carefully measures out the largest space he can cover with his two new tarps, using scrap wood as support posts. Disassembling his former shelter to make maximum use of the materials at hand, he covers the new space with the two tarps, and uses the bedsheets and scrap metal as walls, where rain is less likely to leak in. When he is finished, he has doubled the size of his now waterproof shelter, and created two rooms within the structure—one small comfort to make life just a bit easier in the camp.

Soft-spoken but resolute, Constant spends little time worrying about the future. With his home destroyed, at least he has a shelter now to keep the rain off. Tomorrow, he says, he will see what comes.

"I will just try to work as I can to rebuild," Constant says.

Learn more about CRS' response to the earthquake in Haiti.

David Snyder is a freelance photojournalist who has traveled to more than 30 countries for CRS.

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