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.
Eventually, a manager at
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.
"Dedicate yourself to one homeless person," she says. "Start talking... There are 90,000 people on Miami Beach and 400 or 500 homeless people. We can fix this."
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.