Nearly a year after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, Sean Penn’s JP Haitian Relief Organization is managing a massive tent city. And now, as several of his relief partners announce they are pulling out, Penn is standing his ground.
The actor-turned-humanitarian told FOX411.com in an exclusive interview that he isn’t going anywhere, and won’t let his partners off the hook without a fight.
Penn arrived on the ground in Haiti immediately following the quake that killed as many as 300,000 people last January. After starting with drainage work, the JP Haitian Relief Organization that Penn founded with philanthropist Diana Jenkins has become responsible for a tent city on the grounds of a former golf club. At 55,000 refugees and counting, it is one of the largest camps of displaced persons within Haiti’s borders.
Now some of the groups that have partnered with JP HRO are starting to pull up stakes, changing focus to long-term solutions for those displaced by the quake.
Penn doesn’t have such an exit strategy.
“I don’t think there has even been a published or discussed exit strategy. If there is one, it would only live in my head,” Penn told FOX411.com. “In one mutation or another, this is going to be a several-decades-long organization, and it may develop into something entirely different over time.”
Some of Penn’s partners think otherwise. On the ground in Haiti, panicked camp workers told FOX411.com that several partner organizations will be reducing their services by the end of the year, leaving JP HRO scrambling to fill gaps in the services. The organizations that are preparing to leave have said they are concerned that continued camp services and management will prolong people staying in temporary shelters, and discourage them from rebuilding.
Among those looking to pull up stakes are Catholic Relief Services, which has been providing a cash-for-work program for the city’s inhabitants, and OxFam, which has been providing clean water to the camp.
“We started our work in the camp in March, and that work is winding down sometime in the new year, depending on what happens with the rains and whether we can turn our services over to responsible partners,” Robyn Fieser, regional information officer for CRS said. “Our strategy is to move people back into their homes, so we are leaving camp management to the people who are good at that.”
OxFam has been trucking in water to the camp, ensuring that the residents have clean water on a daily basis. Their plan is to cease water trucking operations to the camp by December 31 to move on to building more sustainable water and sanitation.
“The aim is to no longer have water trucking in Golf Club. This week we are hoping to come to a conclusion with JP HRO that those people have access to water even after our major presence in the camp has gone,” said Julie Schindal, a media officer for OxFam International in Haiti. “We are hoping this camp is not around next year. We have to say what is our exit strategy from the camp, and that has to mean getting people into actual communities.”
Several months ago, Schindal said she and Penn were watching as a new foundation and permanent roof were put onto one of the camp structures. Schindal asked Penn why he was bothering to put permanent structures in what was supposed to be a temporary camp. Penn replied: “Try telling these people that.”
Schindal said the camp’s continued presence could lead to continued dependence on outside aid for the Haitian people. “We have to work together to find long-term solutions for these people,” Schindal said. “We have to reconstruct this country rather than be in emergency planning mode."
After months of working with JP HRO, the organization Doctors Without Borders recently ceased operations with the camp, according to JP HRO. Doctors Without Borders did not return repeated calls for comment.
The organization Save the Children said they have no intention of leaving anytime soon, but they recognize they can’t keep helping the people there forever.
“The camp is untenable, and I think everyone is hoping to find a better space for the people there. It’s miserable. It’s on a hillside and the drainage is bad. We’re there because there is need, but the problem about staying is that when you stay and put in these services the people stay,” said Save the Children spokeswoman Kate Conradt.
Penn says he won’t give up on his remaining partners without a fight, and he believes that once he is back on the ground next week, he can convince them to continue their work in the camp so that his team can focus on rubble removal elsewhere in Port Au Prince that would get people out of the camps and back into their homes.
“All of the partners have been good partners, and I don’t intend to give up on any of them, and, if they pull out, there will be scratch marks on their ankles so deep they won’t be able to walk out,” Penn said. “I am extremely reluctant to believe that once I have some conversations with some of these partners that they will be leaving any time soon.”
Penn acknowledges the conflicting pressures on caring for the refugees and pushing for the day when they can again be independent.
“I grow tired of emergency relief myself. It’s rugged duty,” he told FOX411.com.
Following the quake, Penn was on the ground for six months, living among the people and organizing municipal functions on what used to be the Petitionville Country Club, a swank golf club for Haiti’s elite. Penn then had a two-month absence filming the movie “This Must Be The Place,” and is returning next week to face yet another emergency -- the country's first cholera outbreak -- made more dire by the dense living situation in the camps.
"Right now the outbreak is regional and we are linked into the area with a support team there. We have planes identified in Miami to fly in IV kits and Pedialyte. There is an inventory going on right now in Haiti. I don’t want to call it an emergency situation, but right now we are treating one case of watery diarrhea preventatively as if it is cholera, and aggressively tackling the public health issues surrounding that case," said Alastair Lamb, Penn’s in-country director.
In addition to the cholera outbreak, the constant threat of harsh weather and the increased growth rate of the camp contribute to what can often be chaos on the ground. Even without new adults moving into the camp, it is growing rapidly. The birth rate in the JP HRO camp has gone from four children a week to at least 15 each week in the past month, according to medical staff on the ground in Haiti.
Despite an infusion of $500,000 in bridge funding from former President Bill Clinton’s Clinton Foundation earlier this month, JP HRO is struggling to find the large amount of funds it will take to keep the camps running and continue rubble removal in other areas of Port Au Prince that will allow the tent city’s inhabitants to get back into their homes.
“Rubble removal is the key thing. But obviously if something like what just happened with the cholera outbreak keeps happening, and this becomes a widespread outbreak, then we need to focus on that,” Penn said. “I would start with rubble removal, and then camp management is quite important. We would like to expand that and take on other camps because, as you know, most camps have no management.”
Bringing businesses to Haiti, managing the camps and distributing aid all have to be done in concert, the actor added.
“All of these things have to be parallel, and when people separate, that means it is a confession that they aren’t doing their f--ing job, they don’t know what they’re doing, and they should get the f-- out of Haiti," he said.