Haiti’s Tent Cities Beyond Belief

Posted on May 8, 2019


By David Ettinger

Note: Here is a story I wrote after returning from a missionary visit to Haiti following the devastating earthquakes of early 2010. Though “dated,” this account will serve to remind Western Christians that perhaps our problems are not nearly as large as we believe them to be, while helping to focus our sympathies on those far less fortunate than us.

New Reality
The January 12, 2010, earthquake has created a new phenomenon in Haiti: the tent city. You cannot turn anywhere in that devastated nation without seeing a tent. They are on the streets. They are in the fields. They are in marketplaces. They stand among garbage heaps. They are out in the country and in the middle of the city. They are at the sides of highways and even on the medians of those highways (as unimaginable as this is).

They blanket soccer fields once green with grass but are now blue, the predominant color of these vinyl apartments. The tents mostly look the same and are all roughly the same size, yet they have become homes for individuals and families alike. As the only structures that protect Haitians from the elements, the tents exist side by side with each other like row houses in the slums of America’s northeast. But more than anything else, Haiti’s tent cities stand as a galling symbol of the nation’s new homeless reality.

The tents were the quick-fix solution instituted by the Haitian government, the United Nations, and United States to help alleviate the appalling number of homeless that sprung up and multiplied in the aftermath of the quake. No one knows how many tent cities fill the landscape like an infestation of locusts, but I would estimate — based on the more than 1 million homeless Haitians — that there are at least between 250,000 and 350,000 tents.

I’ll leave it to you to imagine what living conditions are like inside the tents, especially during the brutal heat of summer. Add to this that Haiti is a rainy country, so mud becomes an issue as well. Rain, of course, brings mosquitoes, so sleeping without a net is a hazard, and not everyone can afford nets to sleep under if U.N. and U.S. supplies run thin. Mosquitoes, misery, and mayhem now rule the day in Haiti.

Sanitary Nightmare
Then there is the issue of plumbing. As you can well expect, these blue-vinyl habitats have nothing resembling running water or toilets. After getting an eyeful of these tent cities for about 45 minutes, a realization hit me: “Where do these people go to the bathroom?” I mean, there are no toilets in tents and most of the “cities” have no portable facilities in which the residents can relieve themselves.

To tell you the truth, I have no idea where the people go to the bathroom. If I had to guess, I would imagine that Haitians pretty much relieve themselves anywhere that will offer a measure of privacy. If they can’t find a private place to go, they’ll settle for the most convenient spot available. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Haiti’s tent cities are a sanitary nightmare.

To all this you can add the insects, sickness, and disease that accompanies such atrocious conditions and this should give you a very surface-level idea of what the tent cities are like. You could also visit the Internet and do a search for “tent cities” to get a better idea. However, hearing about them in such accounts as this and seeing pictures of them barely scratch the surface. To see the tent cities up close is to experience a depth of unbelief you are not likely to fathom.

Those who have been to Haiti and have seen the tent cities sometimes think their eyes are playing games on them. They see the tents, but can’t quite absorb what they are seeing. Perhaps if these tents existed in small, cozy clusters every few miles and maybe out in the pastoral villages, they may be easier for the Westerner to digest. But this is far from the reality. Haiti’s tent cities are crammed so densely one to another and in such great numbers that one wonders how the people living in these communities can even breathe. In a word, the tent cities of Haiti are an abomination.

Inconceivable Conditions
I mentioned a few paragraphs back that there are even tents on medians separating lanes of traffic on highways. I’m not sure if this made an impression on you, so let’s try an experiment. Think of the busiest street, avenue, or boulevard that has a median in your town. I understand that many streets don’t have concrete medians, but most cities have a least one span of road that has a median. Now, picture yourself driving along that main road with a median that is inundated with tents.

Picture yourself stopped at a long traffic light and you are maybe the seventh or eighth car back. You are more anxious than usual for the light to turn green because, as you sit there with the engine running and the windows closed, you are only two to three feet away from the open flap of a tent where a family is living. You take a quick glance inside and notice that a mother is brushing her daughter’s hair, or perhaps that a young boy is eating a bowl of rice and beans with his hand. You are struck by the horror that this tent is an actual home; that people really do live here 24 hours a day as traffic rushes by them at dangerously intrusive proximity.

It is inconceivable for you to believe that such a reality exists. Do you know how I know this? I know this because I have seen these tent-strewn medians and I can’t believe them. To me, the tent cities are the emblem of post-earthquake Haiti, an inescapable reminder of just how low the depths of poverty can sink. However, even the tents on the sides of the roads and in the villages are like villas compared to those that stand ever so perilously between opposing sides of flowing, rushing traffic where one accident can wipe out an entire tent family in an instant.

What to Make of It?
So how do we as Christians make sense of the nonsensical and hang on to hope in the midst of hopelessness? The key is this: When God looks upon the souls of men and women, He sees no external wealth or wretchedness. Instead, He sees those with humble hearts in desperate need of a Savior and invites them to come to the feet of this Savior, the same offer He makes to those who live in mansions. God loves the tent-dwellers of Haiti and longs to give them the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. Our God is not blind to the suffering of those who grieve. His Word tells us, “The lowly he sets on high, and those who mourn are lifted to safety” (Job 5:11).

Yes, the tent cities of Haiti are ghastly, filthy, shocking, tragic, and pathetic, but contain within them the precious souls of men, women, boys, and girls for whom Christ died. So, if you feel moved to contribute funds for these poor Haitians, please do so. But more importantly, pray for their souls that one day, when this life is over, they will inherit the mansions that God the Father has prepared for them in advance (John 14:1-4), mansions that will far exceed anything this dying world has to offer.