New Orleans Here’s an interesting twist on the Haitian disaster where 3 million people may now be homeless and essentially living as refugees in their own homes and country: support squatters’ rights. A least that’s the argument made as one of the rebuilding contributions on the op-ed page of the New York Times today by Robert Neuwirth, author of “Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World.”
Obviously ACORN International has a lot of experience working and organizing in squatting communities especially in Kenya, India, and Peru especially. I had even read the book, which I enjoyed and found informative even about areas where we work, although I also thought Neuwirth sometimes drifted a little heavily into a sort of “oh, gee” kind of advocacy about a situation where is primarily driven by necessity and poverty obviously rather than a life style choice. This piece in the Times walks precariously close to that line as well, but Neuwirth has a solid point and as a rebuilding strategy I think it deserves full attention and support.
In essence why should the Haitian recovery pretend, as we continue to do in New Orleans, that these are simply “temporary” measures while we rebuild to specifications in the bye and bye which directly ensure the opposite of what we intend thereby exiling tens of thousands of New Orleanians who are unable to return. In Haiti there’s nowhere else to go, though ACORN International members in Santiago, Dominican Republic report that they are already seeing families pushing to unite with relatives working – as undocumented immigrants in low wage jobs – all over the Dominican Republic.
People are going to have to live where they stand and settle there for years. That means long term refugee-style encampments like the Organizers’ Forum witnessed along the Burmese border and are common in many other situations. This may not be exactly what Neuwirth is advocating, but why not actually make part of the recovery strategy and rebuilding plan one that supports long term squatter communities with real infrastructure and resources that ameliorates the normal hand-to-mouth reality of the squatting homeless? For a chance why can’t we embrace reality rather than forcing people to live in total misery and adapt to it for years, if not decades, while we pretend we are hard to work on a real solution?
Squatting is a hard way to live and requires hard work to survive, but removing the extralegal restraints and immediately supporting with raw building materials, potable water, and electricity in the Haitian climate could be a workable solution with a real partnership between people and the rebuilding resources.