San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Shanties Threatened by Imminent Collapse

ABOUT 1,200 families living in ashantytown along the banks of a drainagebasin near Heredia, north of San José, facethe daily possibility that their houses couldcollapse.The hillsides where their shacks arebuilt are eroded and the foundations oftheir homes undermined by every rainstorm.Last week alone, 19 families wereevacuated to emergency shelters.About 70% of those living in the basin,called the Cuencas de Guararí, arebelieved to be Nicaraguan immigrants.Thousands of them are children and all ofthem should be moved out of there,according to officials of the NationalEmergency Commission (CNE).MOST live in extreme poverty, findingwork where they can, the womenworking in factories and as maids, the menin construction and, seasonally, in the coffeefields.A report by the New JerusalemAssociation, a non-governmental organizationthat combines the efforts of manycommunity organizations in the area, saysthe intense poverty and constant risk ofhomelessness are a debilitating socialproblem. Under the strain, problems suchas the disintegration of the family, delinquency,drug addiction, prostitution, theftand acute depression are beginning to takeroot, the association reports.Wastewater drainage ditches zigzagthrough the tottering jumble of shacksbuilt from tin sheeting and wood. Wallsbulge under the weight of earth slidinginto them from the slopes above, and someare braced with posts to ward off collapseand possible burial.THE hovels are hidden among thetrappings of economic progress, just out ofsight from the newly constructed Paseo deLas Flores shopping mall, inaugurated thisweek (see separate article), and thePriceSmart outlet.When the first group of people wasmoved last week, Heredia Mayor JavierCarvajal said, “Today there are 11 families,tomorrow there will be more.”Fulfilling his prediction, the followingday officials of the National EmergencyCommission evacuated eight more families.Carvajal said they plan to relocate 69families total this month.Carvajal and others are seeking solutions,but the main obstacle is a lack ofmoney.He and Felipe González, president ofNew Jerusalem Association, advocaterelocating the entire community to morestable land and building them condominiums.To do so they estimate they wouldneed about $20 million, a sum that maynot be far out of reach.THE governments of Costa Rica andNicaragua are jointly promoting a pilotplan that aims to solve the housing problemfor thousands of Nicaraguan immigrantsliving in poverty in Costa Rica.Both countries would fund the project.The condominiums could be constructedin a plot of land acquired by theCosta Rican government, and could houseall the eligible families, both Costa Ricanand Nicaraguan.Carvajal has invited legislators andrepresentatives of government institutionsto a meeting this month to plot a course ofaction.MEANWHILE, the risk becomesmore poignant with every rainfall.“More squatters come all the time andthey are more exposed (to danger),” CNEofficial Victor Jiménez said.The problem is worsening, he said,because people build more houses on theslopes, which keeps the water from seepinginto the ground, causing it to run offand erode the banks faster.The Mixed Institute for Social Aid(IMAS), a government welfare and emergencyfunding institution, offers shelterfor up to one month to those who are evacuated,but only to Costa Ricans and foreignerswho are legal residents.ONE of those evacuated, SergioRodríguez, had lived in his shack in thebasin for eight years. It flooded duringrainstorms until finally the ground gaveout and he, his wife and six children wereforced to leave. From the community hall,they were to be moved into temporaryhousing, possibly for two months if IMASgrants Mayor Carvajal’s funding request.“After that, we don’t know what we’lldo,” he said.A large rift had developed that day inthe dirt floor of the bedroom of one shackon a hillside, others split the ground infront of the door to the laundry room andshower, and the cement in the shower floorwas crumbling along a fissure.While community leaders are pushingfor a permanent solution, in the short term,the families that are evacuated need foodand basic necessities. Those who wouldlike to contribute can make arrangementswith González by calling him at 357-0320.

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