Survivors of Valparaiso firestorm march on Congress to demand decent housing and dignity

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Survivors of Valparaiso firestorm march on Congress to demand decent housing and dignity

By Lezak Shallat, Fundación EPES CHILE

Torrential rains turned the steep streets and ravines of Valparaíso into rivers, and makeshift emergency housing into sieves. On June 11, two months after the firestorm that consumed 3,000 homes and damaged 12,000 more in the Chilean city of Valparaiso, its blackened hills were not ringing with the sounds of hammers; instead, the angry chants of protestors banging pots and pans echoed from hill to hill as the scores of people battled the rain to march down to the gates of the National Congress to demand to decent housing.

Marco Olmedo is clothed in a plastic bag to keep off the rain. His house on Cerro El Litre burned to the ground, and everything in it. Fortunately, he wasn’t there. Unemployed, he had left four days earlier for Argentina to look for work. He saw his neighborhood engulfed in flames on TV news and rushed back to salvage what he could.  He’s living in the makeshift, emergency housing known as “media-aguas” — a one-room, wooden shack with no bathroom. His electricity was only restored today.

Lorena Monroy, President of the Cerro El Litre Neighborhood Council, charges the government with negligence. “It’s impossible that we still are lacking a rapid, definitive and dignified solution.”

“No more emergency shacks in Chile,” demands Mauricio Salazar, director of the Las Cañas Community Center where EPES in focusing its recovery efforts. “They don’t work. That’s our reality.” Salazar denounced “disorganization and rumor” from the authorities in charge of the rebuilding efforts.

“We are here to tell them that we are not going to let them forget about us until we have decent, dignified housing,” he promises, backed by cheers from the crowd. A scuffle with police followed as the protestors momentarily blocked the entrance into Congress, located at the foot of the city’s impoverished hillsides.

Hear Marco, Lorena and Mauricio in their own words.

Health educator Mónica Arancibia, facilitator of the participatory assessment process supported by ACT member Fundación Educación Popular en Salud (EPES), accompanied the marchers and attested to their demands. “In structured conversations, residents are prioritizing their individual and collective needs: weatherproofing the shelters, clean-ups of the communal toilets and showers, a place to wash clothes, garbage pick-up,” she enumerates.

Mónica also cites the contribution of “commitment, support and identity” that EPES is providing. “Like them, I’m a also pobladora (resident of a low-income sector launched in a land takeover on the outskirts of the city). I know what it is like to struggle.”

The EPES-facilitated assessment is shedding light on a host of problems that won’t disappear once the rains stop. “The procedures for assigning and building the emergency housing is sorely lacking in controls,” says Maria Eugenia Calvin, EPES Director of Planning and coordinator of the ACT initiative in Valparaiso. “Boards are missing, nails are missing, the shacks come without locks for the door. The families who are fixing up their homes need skilled builders to oversee the dwindling number of volunteers who have stayed on to help the homeless. But instead of hiring local workmen, the government is bringing in military people to carry out the repairs.”