'My job is to understand how people live'

Shelter is more than just a building and a roof over a family’s head; it is the bedrock for health, dignity and a livelihood, says Tom Newby, head of humanitarian at global nonprofit CARE International UK

Shelter is difficult to provide. It’s not like food or water that is relatively cheap per head. In a rapid emergency the minimum goal is to get people under cover as quickly as possible. The broader aim is to help people into adequate housing that will help them recover. Housing is protection from the elements but, more importantly, it provides an anchor for wellbeing, privacy and dignity. You realise what a fundamental human need it is when you see the lengths people will go to – and the harm they will do to themselves and their families – to have a home.

I’m a structural engineer by background. I joined CARE International UK three years ago to lead the global emergency shelter team, and I’ve visited around 10 countries in that time. In cases of natural disaster or displacement, I go out to talk to the people affected, assess the needs and draw up a programme of support.

"We very rarely give people tents. Tents are a last resort; no one wants to live in one"Lack of shelter is a livelihood issue. In many places people make things to sell in their homes, or their house may also be a shop. In the 2015 Nepal earthquake, people stored food in their attics so they went hungry as well as homeless. Without housing, people can end up in a downward spiral as their health, income and livelihood degrades. It really is a building block for all other development work.

We very rarely give people tents. Tents are a last resort; no one wants to live in one. If you can do something more meaningful, you should.

Across the Middle East we’ve helped more than 385,000 people in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq with upgrades to housing, vouchers or cash assistance. Most Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan rent accommodation. Our goal is to help them secure fair rental terms, pay the rent – about $200 a month in Tripoli, for example – and live without fear of eviction.

We’ve been running the programme in Lebanon since 2015 in Tripoli and Beirut, which focuses on upgrading housing for Syrian refugees and Lebanese living in poor areas. The refugees live in pretty dire situations, although more than 80 per cent pay rent. That may be for an empty plot of land to build a shack upon, a garage or commercial unit, or even access to an outside toilet.

My last trip to Lebanon lasted three weeks. It typically starts with a few days in Beirut to assess the needs of refugees. Each day we look at the security situation, before heading out with our local staff to some of Tripoli’s poorest neighbourhoods.

My job is to understand how people live. We ask how many people there are in each house, how many families, what the sleeping arrangements are. Some of these can be sensitive questions. If there are adolescent children, boys may have to sleep in even worse accommodation, or outside, because it’s not appropriate for them to share the room. There is always a risk of abuse, sexual or otherwise, when you have strangers together. I mainly play a backseat role to our local staff; sometimes it is appropriate for me to join in, sometimes it isn’t.

"Some of the conditions are heartbreaking. After five years outside Syria, most refugees have used up their savings and their lives are increasingly precarious"A lot of the improvements are very basic, such as sealing off draughts, putting in doors and windows, and making sure they have access to water. It costs around $1,225 per household and CARE has already helped more than 18,000 individuals.

Some of the conditions are heartbreaking. After five years outside Syria, most refugees have used up their savings and their lives are increasingly precarious. I met a single mother with three sons between 10-years-old and early teens, and all three had to work. You could see the mother felt she had absolutely no choice but to sell her children’s future; it’s hugely affecting.

With housing, part of the challenge is ensuring it works for everyone. Men and women have different needs and you need to have women interviewing other women or you won’t get honest answers. One frequent issue is a lack of privacy for women and girls to sleep or change, or the availability of washing facilities during menstruation.

In some Nepali communities, for example, women who are menstruating have to live in a separate building. We find women are kicked out of the emergency shelter and have to live in something absolutely awful, even in a pigsty. It is my job to understand the local, social and cultural context or you end up with a section of society systematically excluded from equitable support.

Cold climates are the hardest to manage. There is little you can do other than provide heaters. The cost of building a really well-insulated shelter is enormous. In hot climates, the key thing is to provide shade, such as netting or a second layer over the shelter.

After a natural disaster our default response is to provide emergency shelter kits. These consist of two big plastic sheets, fixings and rope. These can be turned into tents if needed, or they can be used to patch up a damaged roof or cover a hole in the wall. After typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines in 2013, a lot of building frames were still standing. People used the sheets to cover the roof and moved straight back in. The kits are very versatile and cost a fraction of the price of a tent – about $30 compared to $300.

We helped about 16,000 households after that disaster with kits, training and roofing materials. We always favour local building methods, working with materials people are used to and which tend to be sustainable. Teaching people to adopt a new building material in a crisis is very challenging.

There are both high- and low-tech innovations for housing, but there aren’t any panaceas. A great deal of misdirected effort is spent on ideas for tents, shelters, things that can roll straight off the back of a truck. But those ideas ignore the cultural, social and economic context – they drop something in, which never works. When it comes to housing, true innovations have to be either very local, or a component part rather than a whole structure.

In situations where populations have been displaced, such as with Syrian refugees, giving people cash nearly always has better outcomes than just gifting a tent. The ability for people to make choices and buy what makes the most sense for them cannot be underestimated.

Still, there is a danger of having a simplistic view of cash. There is no point in cash grants if the building materials aren’t available; if people rebuild exactly what they had before with the same vulnerabilities; or if the landlord is exploiting the tenant, for instance. You need to provide training or legal support alongside the grants. A big challenge for the sector in the next few years is how to provide support that empowers people to make the best use of cash.

The job is difficult because it’s never quite as simple as providing someone with a physical object to live in. We need to see the whole picture. Only then can you provide not just a shelter but a home.