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A roof for Haiti

GRAND GOAVE, Haiti – Maryse Auguste says she’s happy with her new home, a tidy, one-room shelter built after the January 12 earthquake by young volunteers of Un Techo Para Mi País (Spanish for A Roof for My Country), a nongovernmental organization specialized in providing temporary housing to the desperately poor in 16 Latin American countries.

Auguste, a petite woman with three children ages 12, 8 and 3, lost both her house and her husband in the earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people, and left around one million homeless, principally in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.

Her dire situation made Auguste a clear candidate to receive assistance from Un Techo, which was established by young Chileans guided by a Jesuit priest in 1997 to improve the living conditions of families in shantytowns in their country. In 2001, after El Salvador and Peru were hit by earthquakes, the NGO started to expand to other countries in this region, in several instances with support from the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF).

While providing shelter is central to its mission, it’s not the NGO’s only goal. Un Techo, which is run by young people, recruits high school and university students to work with the families slated to receive a house. Besides building homes, volunteers visit families once a week until they complete the program, which also helps people find ways to boost their incomes. Many receive job training or gain access to microcredit.

Over the years Un Techo has built more than 60,000 temporary shelters, using a basic model that can be adapted to local conditions. The 18-sq meter (nearly 200 sq feet) houses they are building in Haiti, which can be put together in a couple of days by a team of four volunteers, cost around $2,000, including logistics costs. With treated pine walls and floorboards and corrugated metal roofs, the light but sturdy structures can last up to 10 years.

“They can also withstand earthquakes – that’s the first thing people ask,” said Alexander Kliwadenko (26), who is running Un Techo in Haiti with a fellow Chilean, Sebastian Smart (25). Both young men, lawyers by training, started as volunteers seven years ago.

Smart added that people who have received Un Techo shelters in other countries have improved them over time, expanding the one-room structures and turning them into the nucleus of a permanent home. The same is likely to happen in Haiti, where they aim to build 10,000 shelters in four years.

Un Techo had not yet opened shop in Haiti when the earthquake struck. They quickly swung into action, raising contributions from Chilean companies and foundations and from international donors such as the IDB, which donated about $280,000 from the Korean Poverty Reduction Fund. In May the MIF approved a $2.6 million grant for Un Techo to support a campaign to build some 2,000 shelters in Haiti.

Rather than focusing on Port-au-Prince, Un Techo chose to work in Grand Goave and Leogane, two towns that were also hit hard by the earthquake. “Most NGOs and government agencies initially started to work in Port-au-Prince, but we opted to come out in this area because it was closer to the epicenter and because aid was not arriving as quickly as it was to the capital,” said Smart.

To determine which families needed shelter more urgently, Un Techo consulted local authorities and community leaders, surveyed prospective building sites and interviewed potential beneficiaries. In all countries they follow a set of criteria—such as the number of children per household, whether there are pregnant women, elderly people or handicapped persons or whether it’s a single-parent family—to make final decisions. “It’s really tough here because nearly every case seems to be a priority,” said Kliwadenko.

Un Techo volunteers have streamed in from countries around the region, including Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru, to build shelters in Grand Goave. Word also spread quickly among young Haitians at universities in the Dominican Republic.

Since they started operations in Haiti, Un Techo has built more than 830 t-shelters. In the process they began construction in an area known as Canaan, in the northern outskirts of Port-au-Prince, where tens of thousands of displaced people have settled. The NGO was planning a massive campaign to build 1,000 shelters around the time of the quake's anniversary but had to postpone the effort after the Nov. 28 elections.

Officials from several international agencies have traveled to Grand Goave to see what Un Techo’s young crew Is doing and have come away very impressed. The temporary but durable houses have become a point of reference for others looking for ways to move hundreds of thousands of quake victims out of the tent cities.

Smart and Kliwadenko have committed to spend one year in Haiti. After that they expect to leave their posts to young Haitian leaders. They have already spotted a strong candidate, Berkins Regis, a 24-year-old Haitian attending medical school in the Dominican Republic.

Asked about what would happen to his plans to become a doctor, Regis replied: “Many of us have realized it’s time to make fundamental decisions about our country’s future.”

Paradoxically, just as Un Techo was getting started in Haiti, Chile suffered a massive earthquake that wiped out entire fishing communities on the Pacific coast. Un Techo has mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers in its home country, building more than 23,000 shelters over the past three months.