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Haiti tent cities pit landowners against homeless

By Edvige Jean-Francois, CNN
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Haitians camp on private land
  • Tent cities still going strong months after Haiti earthquake
  • Landowners frustrated with thousands of homeless on properties
  • Government says a resettlement plan is in the works
  • UN official: Getting 1.5 million people into more permanent housing takes time

Port-Au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- Vladimir Saint-Louis is glad to be back in business months after January's devastating earthquake in Haiti shut down his large athletic complex in the heart of Port-au-Prince.

Although he was unharmed, his father nearly lost his life when cement blocks fell on his car, injuring and trapping him for hours.

On this particular afternoon six months after the quake, customers worked out at Saint-Louis' main gym, some hitting the weights, others at the Ping-Pong table, a welcome break from all that still plagues Haiti.

Still, just footsteps away, stands a tent city erected by 7,000 homeless Haitians on the complex.

"This is a 400-meter track, and this is my soccer field; it's my land; it's part of the same property," Saint-Louis told CNN.

He said that on the night after the quake, desperate Haitians climbed over collapsed walls and found refuge on his land. At first, it was understandable, he said. But six months later, it's clear he has become frustrated.

"All the government officials we sent letters to, all the letters went unanswered," Saint-Louis said.

Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive says the government is working on a resettlement plan, not only to solve land disputes, but also to provide housing for all displaced. But he says the government's hands are tied until billions of pledged funds for Haiti come through.

"Even if we don't have the money, we should have a calendar," says Bellerive, stressing the need for a disbursement calendar.

And there's also the matter of priority.

"We have to understand that right now, the priority of the government is to protect the population from the next hurricane season," Bellerive said. "Most of our force is going in that direction."

Meanwhile, tent camps, thought to be temporary living arrangements in the aftermath of the quake, have become permanent fixtures all over the capital. More than 1,300 have sprouted -- hot, muddy from the rains, lacking water and proper sanitation, and in some cases breeding grounds for turf wars.

An estimated 1.5 million people are homeless and living in such conditions in Haiti. Many are on private property and the crisis is pitting landowners against the desperate.

At another tent camp pitched on private property, Aline Masselin washes clothes by hand in a plastic basin that sits on a dirt floor. She has lived in this camp since the night of the quake. Her daughter, Alexandra, was born here just weeks later.

Recently, a judge showed up at the site, warning the homeless it was time to go and that the owner was fed up. They missed the deadline to leave, and still they are waiting without a place to go. At a nearby camp, another landowner successfully evicted a group of homeless.

"It was 52 families," said Emmanuel Auguste, showing a lot that once housed quake victims who have now resettled in other camps.

Asked whether there will be a change six months from now, United Nations humanitarian spokesman Imogen Wall was blunt.

"It will take time to get 1.5 million people back into the kind of long-term living arrangements that they want and need," she said.

For Vladimir Saint-Louis -- whose athletic complex once boasted tennis and basketball courts, a soccer field and other recreational areas that have now become squatting areas -- news that this will take even longer does not sit well.

"There's a barbershop. There's a cyber cafe. There's a hotel in one of the tents, where people pay to stay there for the night -- I swear to God," he said.

So far, Saint-Louis has found a way to make peace with the homeless on his land, waiting for a solution to come to salvage his business that's taken a 50 percent hit since it became the site of a tent city.

Asked whether he can keep his business afloat, he replied, "God give the strength. God give me the strength."

CNN's Ivan Watson contributed to this report.