Advocate's Videos Tell the Story of Miami Beach's Homeless

Two months ago, Valerie Navarrete — a Miami Beach real-estate agent and chairperson of the city's homeless committee — launched a passion project using nothing more than an iPad and her Facebook account.

With her 15-year-old son serving as her cameraman, she struck up conversations with the city's homeless, asking how they had ended up on the streets and how social services had failed them. Her goal was to create short videos that told the story behind the faces she saw around her city.

Navarrete, who has lived in Miami Beach for 24 years, says time and time again she would hear city officials and other residents remark that many homeless people liked living on the streets. She wanted to see for herself if that was true.

Her conclusion isn't surprising: Through the process of filming her videos, Navarrete found only one person who said he was cool with being homeless. Everyone else unequivocally agreed they'd rather be in a shelter, hotel, or apartment. One man, a college graduate and former white-collar worker who lost everything due to an identity-theft conviction, joked that he considered himself "residentially challenged."

"I don't want to be out here. I hate being homeless," J.T. said. "I feel like this is just another jail."

Confronting that misconception is key in making changes to fix the problem, Navarrete believes.

"People would look at them and say, 'Those bums don't want to work; they just want to drink and have a party all day.' That's not true. They need help," she says.

The people Navarrete encounters on the streets are former schoolteachers, military veterans, waiters, and construction workers. Through a series of unfortunate events, ranging from illness to job loss to eviction, they have found themselves living across from the nightclubs and art deco hotels on Ocean Drive or the glitzy chain stores on Lincoln Road. Some say they could save up for an apartment if they could only get into a shelter or a hotel for one or two weeks.

The experience has made Navarrete realize how fragile most people's economic situation is at any given moment. (After all, the average person in Miami can afford to save only $18 a month, and three-quarters of the city's black and Latino population couldn't cover their basic life expenses for three months in an emergency.)

"You have people living paycheck-to-paycheck, and just a little gap could put them in the poorhouse, on the streets, if they get sick, miss a few days of work, and lose their jobs," Navarrete says.

As head of Miami Beach's committee on the homeless, Navarrete also asks people if they have reached out to shelters and organizations meant to help the homeless. But she says many of the homeless people she speaks to have been turned away, mistreated, or told they don't qualify for programs. A man named David told her he had gone to the city's homeless outreach center at 555 17th St. (commonly called "555") four times for help before he was banned for "abusing the system."

"They expect you to go there one time and be miraculously healed," David said. "Just like anything, it takes time to rearrange your life... It's a process."

Other interviewees told Navarrete they don't feel safe in a shelter, where they can be mugged. Many described the environment as prison-like, saying if you weren't part of an organized group, you became a target. Gina, a disabled woman who sleeps outside the Dunkin' Donuts across from Bodega, said she didn't feel comfortable being cooped up with drug addicts and alcoholics.

"I won't stay in any shelters," she said adamantly. "They're more dangerous than the streets."

Just in the past week, Navarrete established her own nonprofit in order to address what she calls a gap between the services being offered and the reality of Miami Beach's homeless population. Her organization, Favela Miami, was named after a hearty Brazilian plant by the same name that can survive harsh weather and adapts to its conditions.

Navarrete says she will fight for more affordable housing, for portable showers and toilets, and for housing options for people who have trouble getting sober enough to be accepted at a shelter.

"The thing is, there are several shelters out there, several programs, nonetheless there is still a lot of homeless," she says. "The system is upside down."