Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Transitional housing, time travel and 'lost worlds'

Transitional housing, time travel and 'lost worlds'

While conducting fieldwork in central Italy some years ago, I met a priest whose name was Dante Paolino. Don Paolino was very fond of his namesake, the 14th-century poet Dante. He presented me with a copy of a book he had written and published, entitled The Divine Comedy Brought Up to Date. In this, he used Dante's great masterpiece as a vehicle for commenting on the wiles of the modern world. Readers with a literary disposition may remember that in the Divine Comedy Dante recounts how he is conducted around Hell, Purgatory and Heaven by his mentor, the Roman poet Virgil. The poem is very much a commentary on life and mores in mediaeval Tuscany. In Don Dante Paolino's 20th century version, one of the circles of hell is entirely populated with earthquake victims from the South of Italy (he wrote it shortly after the 1980 Irpinia-Basilicata earthquake, which damaged or destroyed the homes of 400,000 people).

In examining transitional shelter, one is motivated to ask what is 'transitional' for people who lack the resources to get out of it and have been abandoned by their government? Is the answer Hell or merely Purgatory? Sudden-impact disasters can abruptly cast people from a stable existence, one that is normal in terms of their expectations, and those of the communities in which they live, to one that is anything but stable and normal. Stability may be achieved by a form of 'suspended animation', in which a temporary situation 'freezes' and becomes permanent.

At the turn of the millennium, the city of Messina still had some of the temporary accommodation erected after the 1908 Strait of Messina earthquake and tsunami. Granted, it was no longer used as primary housing, but it was still there. Likewise, vestiges of the temporary accommodation can be found in the vicinity of Avezzano, central-southern Italy, even though a century has passed since the 1915 earthquake, which killed 32,500 people and devastated the town.

Romagnano al Monte is one of the smallest municipalities in the Region of Campania, southern Italy. Its fiscal position is gloomy and its political weight is negligible. Hence, 35 years after the 1980 earthquake that devastated the town and necessitated complete evacuation of the original urban fabric, the wooden prefabs are still in situ. The town hall and local coffee bar are still in prefabricated buildings erected by the Italian government at Christmas 1980. To be fair, part of this is a matter of convenience. Prefabs that served as people's transitional homes have been turned into holiday accommodation, but they are still a visual reminder of a long phase of waiting in "transitional" circumstances, while reconstruction slowly, painfully got underway.

The town coffee bar at Romagnano al Monte, southern Italy,

a prefab erected after the 1980 earthquake and photographed in 2011.

Italian Government policy on transitional shelter in the aftermath of the L'Aquila (central Italy) earthquake of 2009 is described in more detail elsewhere in this book and is interesting because it is so radical. Lavishing very large sums of money on transitional shelter can be interpreted as a message to the beneficiaries that the temporary situation is designed to last. It is an expression of pessimism in the ability to find the necessary money and political drive to achieve full recovery in any reasonable length of time.

Once, during a tour of the backwoods of rural Calabria (southern Italy), I drove around a corner and came face to face with a group of about 20 prefabs, nestling in a valley. I found out that they had been built for families made homeless by a large landslide about 25 years previously. There they lay, fully inhabited and completely forgotten by the rest of society. How many more "lost worlds" of this kind are there?

Transitional shelter is an artefact of wealthy countries. Units usually cost upwards of US$20,000, and possibly much more than that, with transportation and site preparation costs included. Whereas the problem of transitional shelter that does not adequately fit the needs of its beneficiaries is well known in the context of donor countries supplying it to poor nations that have suffered disaster, there is a parallel set of issues associated with the domestic use of shelter in rich, or relatively rich, countries.

Barrack-style temporary housing was supplied to homeless survivors of the 1968 earthquakes in the Belice Valley of western Sicily. It was unpleasant to live in, cramped and poorly situated with respect to people's needs (such as travel to work, agricultural activities and shopping for basic necessities), but it was a roof over their heads at a critical moment. Predictably, as soon as alternative accommodation was arranged, it was abandoned. On a blisteringly hot day in the summer of 1983 I visited the prefabs and found them silent, deserted and empty amid the parched fields. Later, with the influx of illegal migrants from North Africa, they were recolonised by groups of people who were lower down the social scale than the original beneficiaries. In similar manner, in central Italy, the land abandoned after the massive landslide of 1982 in the city of Ancona was briefly colonised by itinerant groups of Roma, who had nowhere else to pitch camp.

These are situations in which transitional housing has contributed to a 'ghettoisation' of the disaster area, which may, as time goes on, accumulate a sense of relative permanence. Thus, transitional housing is capable of creating a new stratification in local society—between the upper caste, who did not lose their permanent homes, and the lower caste, who did, and are forced to live in the prefabs. Community spirit and solidarity are not well served by such a distinction and one hopes that recovery policies will eliminate it as soon as possible by doggedly pursuing full reconstruction and eventually dismantling the prefabs. Yet this is often not the case.

In many countries where there is substantial poverty, a significant proportion of the population lives in so-called 'informal' housing. In cities such as Rio de Janeiro this can attain remarkable levels of social and architectural sophistication, while at the same time retaining all the crude drawbacks of precarious, unplanned urbanisation. At its very worst, the permanence of transitional housing in richer countries could be regarded as a regression to something akin to the 'informal' settlements of less fortunate countries. Granted, it does not go all the way and is a far cry from the lawlessness and destitution that characterise such places in many of the world's developing metropolises. However, if nothing else, the presence of these situations, frozen in time, and the social realities that they represent, call into question the definition of welfare.

Where it exists, welfare is the social safety net. It can be defined as "the provision of care to a minimum acceptable standard to people who are unable adequately to look after themselves." This begs the question of what the 'minimum acceptable standard' should be, and what it entails? The answer is highly variable from one country to another, even among wealthy nations. With increases in global mobility—and people-trafficking—there is also a burning question about to whom welfare applies. In many respects, the solution is a matter of determining what welfare is not, instead of what it is.

Transitional housing is usually donated to its users. They do not have to buy it and probably do not pay rent to live in it. Local authorities may be charged with maintaining it, unless a central government agency takes over this function. In the case of the Great Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, transitional housing was supplied to many people and families whose homes had been swept away by the waves. It was designed and supplied under central government auspices. it was highly standardised and a balance was struck between functionality and cost. Living in the transitional units was unpleasant, but it embodied a pact between the residents and the Japanese Government: endure these conditions for up to seven years, but no more, and you will move into safe, acceptable permanent housing. Hence, the key to understanding transitional housing lies in whether there is a relationship of trust between the users and the government (at whichever level), an how strong that relationship is.

Transitional housing near Ishinomaki, northeast Japan, in 2013.

The welfare function of transitional housing in cases that differ strongly from the Japanese example is, in effect, truncated. The Government is telling survivors, in so many words, "we will start you off on the road to recovery by providing basic shelter" but the rest is up to you, and if you do not have the resources to progress beyond this stage, this is where you will remain."

Paradoxically, this sort of failure of welfare induces dependency. Beneficiaries can go neither forward nor backward. They are politically weightless, not empowered, not listened to. It is to be expected that such situations are most common in areas that are backwaters in a country's political and economic life. From the point of view of a government administrator, or a politician seeking re-election, it does not matter if the inhabitants of a forgotten mountain valley are left in limbo. Yet occasionally such situations turn around. The inertia in western Sicily after the 1968 earthquakes became a festering problem that forced the Italian Government to act 15-20 years after the disaster, which it did using what Americans will recognise as 'pork-barrel legislation', the enactment of measures on the back of provisions for other disasters. Elsewhere, the plight of the 'transitional tribes' will become a matter, not so much for anthropologists, but for archaeologists!