By trade, Valerie Navarrete is a Miami Beach real estate agent with Keller Williams. But she is most passionate about helping the homeless. As far back as she can remember, seeing homeless people always deeply distressed her. Growing up in São Paulo, Brazil, she couldn't comprehend how, as a society, people just went about their day while there were human beings literally lying on the street without any help.
"It really stood out to me," Navarrete says. "I just felt like, how could this be happening?"
That feeling never left her. At the age of 18, she left São Paulo to study in Santiago, Chile, and then transferred to a school in Caracas, Venezuela, to be closer to her father. When she graduated, she planned to go backpacking around Europe but decided to make a pit stop in Miami, where a friend was staying.
"She said, 'Why don't you stop in Miami first?' So I did. That was 26 years ago," Navarrete, now 51, laughs. "I never really decided to stay; it just kept happening." After working at a restaurant, she saw an ad looking for realtors and decided that was something she could do. She also began volunteering, as chair of Miami Beach's Committee on Homelessness, at food kitchens and for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
With the homeless, she focuses on one person at a time, listens to what they need, and then relays that information to acquaintances who can help.
That's what happened when she interviewed a homeless veteran, Sgt. Thomas McDonalds. There's a moment in the video when the camera pans to McDonalds' friend on the left: That visibility ended up reuniting the friend, Jerry, with his three sisters in New Jersey who had been frantically searching for him. Navarrete posted on Facebook about Jerry's situation, pointing out the hypocrisy of people who dismiss the homeless by saying, "Get a job!" but then don't help them find work.
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To Navarrete, it's important for people to understand that homelessness isn't just the government's problem; it's also a cultural issue. She firmly believes that if every person set out to help just one homeless person get back on their feet, there would be no more homelessness.
Two years ago, she began interviewing homeless people around Miami Beach. These interviews dispel some of the myths surrounding homeless people, among them that they simply don't want to work and prefer living on the street.