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Thousands awaiting homes pose challenge for Chavez

"I'm sure we're going to have our home soon," said Gregoria Graterol, a 56-year-old hospital elevator operator who is staying with her two daughters and three grandchildren in a room with 16 other families.

She is among more than 3,000 evacuees living in dormitories, warehouses and a technical school at the center. Signs of Chavez's socialist leanings are visible everywhere, in slogans such as "Against Imperialism" emblazoned on walls, along with images of Chavez, Fidel Castro and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

The temporary residents have marked each family's territory with signs on bunk beds such as "Familia Salazar." Many in this shelter said they were being treated well, with free meals and a wide variety of activities offered by the state oil company, including acrobatics classes for teenagers and candle-making workshops for adults.

"We feel at home," said Carolina Bance, a 16-year-old who was practicing acrobatics.

Elsewhere, some Venezuelans who are waiting for housing have protested to demand better conditions in government-run shelters - including one group that tried to block a highway in the suburb of Guarenas last month. In footage shown on Venezuelan television, several protesters were struck by a passing vehicles, and others ran into the road screaming to help the injured.

In Caracas, officials say they have been improving conditions in shelters by installing petroleum-based plastic partitions to give families more privacy. Soldiers turned away AP reporters from some of those shelters, saying military approval was required.

Caracas' housing problems go back decades. A chronic lack of planning contributed to urban sprawl as the poorly-built shantytowns spread over the years on steep, unstable hillsides. Their bare brick-and-cement "ranchos" have often come crashing down in landslides ever since.

"The hills are collapsing due to super-population," Chavez said recently, suggesting some housing projects must be built outside the city. "There are too many people in Caracas."

In the barrios, extended families of 10 people or more live crammed into a few rooms, and rents have been rapidly climbing.

Squatters have increasingly invaded and claimed abandoned buildings in recent years. Marwin Claro, 36, has been living in a once-vacant building owned by a bank in Caracas since she and other squatters broke in at 3 a.m. one morning in 2005, cutting the lock and talking their way past the security guards.

"There are many abandoned buildings," Claro said. "So when people see those buildings, they have to go inside. I support that."

She feels that Chavez also supports the plight of those who don't own a home - a perception reinforced by the government's recent crackdown on construction companies that face accusations of scamming home buyers and illegally charging inflation adjustments. The authorities have detained at least 42 people in the investigation since October.

Chavez's opponents say such maneuvers are intended to distract from his own failures. Chavez set a goal of providing 150,000 homes during his last re-election year in 2006, but fell far short at about 77,000 - many of which werent turned over to people until the following year.

Still, many in the shelters said they are thankful to Chavez and plan to vote for him next year. Looking out over the buckled street that now runs in front of her abandoned home, Maria Franco, 43, said sadly: "It doesn't look like it was due to rain. It looks like it was an earthquake."

"We hope they'll solve our problems," she said. "We have to have faith."

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© 2011 The Associated Press