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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Gunfire erupts and thick clouds of tear gas send dozens of demonstrators fleeing from the grounds of Haiti’s imploded presidential palace.
They are running. They are shouting in Creole. They are angry their government isn’t doing more to help them after a massive earthquake leveled the country in January.
Then, as quickly as they appeared, the crowds vanish into the chaotic Champ de Mars, a park once known for its manicured lawns and historical monuments but that has since become a tent city, a collection of 35,000 improvised homes made from tree branches, plastic tarps and scrap metal.
It’s late May, and the evening’s civil unrest is a jarring welcome to Haiti for Wayne Elsey, who is here for the first time in the nation’s capital with staffers from Soles4Souls, the shoe charity he founded in 2005, and this reporter. Also along are members of Assist International, a humanitarian organization that constructs orphanages and supplies medical equipment.
Executives from both groups are using their four-day visit to assess the damage and see what kind of aid is still needed. Then they will begin to implement long-range plans to help the island rebuild following the powerful 7.0 quake that killed more than 220,000 people and left millions homeless.
Tensions are rising. Despite all the disaster relief efforts — and the billions of dollars in foreign aid — many Haitians interviewed by Footwear News said the situation is getting worse.
Residents complain that there isn’t a clear strategy for exiting the makeshift tent communities; nor is there anywhere to go for jobs that will let them earn enough to feed their families. What’s more, most locals say they fear what’s coming: the rainy season.
“I’m very worried about the hurricanes,” says Silme Lubim, 25, who moved into a tent with six relatives after his house fell in La Plaine. “But the government is not doing anything. So what can I do? What can you do to prevent it? Nothing. I’m just trying to find food and purified water. That’s the way of life now — wake up and survive.”
For the most part, people still live next to sewage-covered roads and ravines overflowing with garbage and human feces. The summer’s heavy floods are poised to wash the waste from tent to tent, setting up a lethal scenario for water- and insect-borne diseases to flourish.
For Elsey, a large jovial figure with just a high school degree, it is now a race against time. He believes the quality of life can be dramatically improved in Haiti by distributing millions of shoes — a combination of new product collected from manufacturers and gently worn pairs donated by individuals — to help protect people’s feet. The Soles4Souls chief also hopes to spark commerce by enabling locals with street-side shoe stores, or “micro-businesses,” as he likes to call them. And Elsey is hatching plans to offer more durable housing.
“Being down here has validated the fact that we need to be quicker, stronger and better with our initiatives,” he says. “We’re seeing a lot of insanity and inhumanity. It’s really sad.”
Under the bright-blue sky, our van travels west of the capital to Léogâne, one of the towns hit hardest by the earthquake.
The ride is taking longer than it should. A number of roads and bridges were destroyed, limiting the ability to travel. And those routes that are left have enough potholes and piles of rubble to challenge even the most experienced drivers.
Along the way, Elsey looks out the window, wincing with each foul stench that seeps in from the food stands lining the streets. Sometimes, it stinks from fish that’s been sitting in the sun. Other times, it reeks from rotten produce.
In Léogâne, almost every building is razed. People have set up camps in sugar cane fields and gardens, places they once relied on to scratch out a living.
The vehicle stops at an orphanage, where children are resting under USAID-supplied plastic sheeting. It offers a small amount of shade just outside their dwelling, a tin structure with 16 rows of beds stacked by three up to the ceiling. The kids are barefoot, with thin limbs jutting out of ripped clothes. Many have never worn shoes.
John Chew, an American who speaks several languages and lived in Haiti for a decade, works as a field officer for Assist International. He has been here — and to loads of other orphanages — before, largely working with faith-based missionaries. Chew, a soft-spoken man with a gentle manner, tells the people who run the orphanage that free shoes will be provided.
Within minutes, a metal basin with clean water appears. One after another, the children step in. Soon the water turns dark brown. Elsey and the group keep washing their feet, drying them off and then placing on a new pair of shoes. The children smile. Elsey tears up.
“There is no excuse for people to live like this,” he says. “It is months after the earthquake. These are the forgotten kids out here.”