By Klara Gomez
Valerie Navarrete is Chair of the Miami Beach Homelessness Committee. I became interested in her work after following her on Facebook, where she often posts videos and photos of people living on the streets. In her videos she asks these individuals to share their story and what I’ve learned from her posts is that many of these men and women have gone through rough patches in their lives and haven’t had proper help to bring them back on their feet. Helping those who are most vulnerable is Valerie’s passion, and since our city (and the world in general) need more people like her, I asked her to share her secret.
Valerie, in our society most people would prefer not to interact with the homeless. Many of us judge them to quickly, and label them as derelicts, delinquents, drunks or drug addicts. Most think of them as a nuisance but that’s not your case. I’m interested in your view. How do you see the homeless?
First, I see them as human beings, as people like you and me, as individuals; but unlike you and me, they don’t have a home, they don’t have a roof over their heads. People walk by them and turn the other way, as if they are invisible ghosts of society. They are not invisible. They shouldn’t be ignored as humans. Everyone has a story. They had a home, family, jobs. Most of them are quite interesting people! I have met an ex-millionaire athlete, stock investors, business owners, you name it; all now homeless.
Tell us what got you on this road? When did you become interested in helping the homeless community?
No one should be hungry, lonely or ignored. They are humans but yet no one sees them. I had to make sure society acknowledges that homelessness is everyone’s problem. If we don’t address this issue, it will only get worse. I started to videotape them, to make them visible, in order to give them a voice. They want homes or safe shelter, but the system is broken, so I’m trying to fix it. Ivo and Stella’ stories broke my heart. Tom & Jerry’s uplifted my spirit – I saw them several times and they are always happy and grateful. Jerry’s sister thought he was dead and finding him through my videos made me realize I can be helpful. Everyone should help as it affects us all, one way or another. The community must get involved.
We have different types of homelessness. Not all of them are bums or thieves. There are many that are mentally ill and in need of medication. They might be unable to make decisions but they deserve to be fed, clean, and respected. Some have had a hard life, which has brought them to the streets, such as: loss of their entire family due to an accident, loss of their job and not able to find another one. It only takes three weeks for you to lose your sense of rational thinking and self-respect. Some of them have turned to alcohol and drugs and are now considered a mental health condition. And then there are the ones who are just lazy, which is the minority.
Interview with Miami Beach Activist, Valerie Navarrete
" Together we can find a proper way to help them, so they don't live like garbage on the streets. We also must pay attention to the hard worker who is living pay-check by pay-check, for they are one check away from being homeless. "
Could you describe the programs that are currently in place to help the homeless population? How does our city fare against other progressive cities in the United States?
Not all cities have a homeless outreach center and that is a big part of the problem. Every city, every community should be responsible for their own homeless. The city of Miami Beach is one of the few cities in the US with an outreach center but we don’t have our own shelters. The city rents beds in several shelters in Miami. Unfortunately, there are not enough beds for everyone. Besides, other cities and countries have come to learn that “Housing First” is the way to end homelessness. Give them a safe home first and then work on their challenges—alcohol, drugs, illness or just the need of a job.
As Miami Beach continues to grow, real estate and rents are becoming astronomical. On top of that, our economy depends largely on tourism. The proposed plan to restore North Beach (to make it as attractive as South Beach) includes cleaning the streets of crime. As a North Beach resident I can attest to seeing more homeless than criminals on the streets, and while I agree that our neighborhood needs to be modernized, I’ve also noticed large numbers of homeless people in “trendy” South Beach. The bottom line is we’re talking about people who have no place to go. They can’t be wiped out with the help of some master plan. And even if they could, removing them is not a solution to the bigger problem, but a temporary adjustment. I don’t see how our city leaders will be able to get rid of crime without affecting the homeless. How do we balance the need to keep our city attractive and the need to respect and show compassion towards these individuals whose basic human needs are not being met?
In my opinion we need to hire more police officers and these officers must have better “human contact” training. They need to have better intrapersonal relationship with the homeless in order to work together. This could help decrease crime. The homeless also get robbed, assaulted, raped.
The homeless center is not working “hand-in-hand” with the police as they used to, and this creates more problems. There are several homeless that I’ve talked to who complain about wanting to go to a shelter or wanting a job. Several years ago, the police would take them to the shelters. Now they are forbidden to do this.
Some homeless want to work, but they refuse to go to a shelter because they don’t feel safe there. They want to make their own money to pay rent; but the system we have in place, only helps them if they are in a shelter. This thinking puts a big population in a hamster wheel.
In other cities, like Albuquerque, NM, the Mayor understood their objections and now they offer jobs first. This has been very successful for them. I spoke with their Mayor’s office and they told me the majority of the individuals who accepted work, later accepted shelter and other benefits. As I always say on my videos, the homeless are individuals like you and me. Do you like strangers telling you what to do? I sure don’t, and neither do they. They don’t like to be given “conditions”. They want to have a minimal control of their own lives, just like you and me.
I know of a few homeless who are joining forces to rent a small apartment together. As I keep saying, most of them do not want to live on the streets, but they don’t want to be taken to just any place. I constantly hear horrible stories about what happens in the hallways of the shelters. I ask them to report to the police, but they are afraid because the gangs in the shelters are similar to those in prisons. If you do not belong to a gang, then you are not safe.
Another problem in Miami Beach is that homeless people request assistance at the City’s Outreach program and get turned down, or they feel mistreated, and they leave the building never to return. Some of the regulars get put into programs, stay on for a while and leave for different reasons such as not feeling safe or for felling claustrophobic or because of their PTDS, just to name a few, but later they ask for help, again. After a few times they are placed in shelters, the city refuses to continuing care for them and they are labeled “banned” and they are not allowed to ask for further help once they’re told they are abusing the system. Let me tell you something… I am not a social worker, nor a psychologist, but I do understand and have learned that once you are living on the streets, it only takes three weeks for you to lose your sense of self-respect and perspective. Therefore, you can’t approach a homeless person using the same psychology you would use on others. A more appropriate technique must be applied when dealing with them. It might take them ten or two hundred tries. The important thing is to never give up.
Stella, an elderly woman on disability, is sleeping on Ocean Dr. and 14th Street. She wants a shelter, but when she visited the Outreach Center, she was turned down because they didn’t have a program for her. Had she been an alcoholic, drug addict, prostitute or gambler, she would had been placed somewhere; but by not having addictions, they were unable to find her shelter. This is unacceptable! People walk by her, look down on her or look the other way, or call her “a bum”. It is not right. I need the community to understand that most of the homeless are not on the streets by their choice.
What’s your vision for the City of Miami Beach? What goals are you setting for the Committee for the Homeless and how are you planning to carry them?
My personal intention is to educate the community, so together we can raise the homeless population's spirits, and help people realize they are human beings and must be respected. Together we can find a proper way to help them, so they don’t live like garbage on the streets. We also must pay attention to the hard worker who is living pay-check by pay-check, for they are one check away from being homeless.
Another issue is that other cities send their homeless here for the winter. As I mentioned before, every city should take care of their own homeless. I believe our city officials as well as the Homeless Trust, should pressure our Governor to take proper actions at a national level to stop this.
As Chair of the Miami Beach Committee for the Homeless where do you see our most urgent need for improvement?
I am honored to be part of this committee. It is in my heart. One of my biggest goals is to get the community involved, so together we can end homelessness in our city. That said, the plan is to “humanize” the homeless and perhaps they will have more spirit and willingness to take the first step towards getting out of the streets. I call it Project Humanization and these are the main points:
To offer shower, haircuts, clean clothes (with the help of the community) to make the homeless look better, on the hope they will feel better and accept the help the city has to offer, therefore taking them out of the streets.
To offer public restrooms so they won’t defecate in public or private property, and also this will give them more dignity and respect to their persona, therefore, as above, we hope this will have a positive impact on accepting assistance. Because, let’s be honest . . . How can one think of looking for a job or a home if you haven’t even had a shower in a week?
To invite psychologists and other professionals who are working directly with the homeless to educate the board members so we (the board) can make educated recommendations on how to solve the homeless situation in our City.
To explore the role of the justice system and those with mental illness; and medicate the mentally ill.
To establish a “no-panhandling” campaign for hotels. I want to extend that to businesses as well. Even the homeless tell me to don’t give them money or they will “drink” it.
To re-open the Outreach Center to provide services seven days a week, either 24/7 or starting at 7am but closing no earlier than 2am.
Offer a new designated safe area for the homeless to sleep and even spend the day. (Before, the homeless could sleep at the 555 bldg. but over a month ago, the city barricaded that bldg. and now the homeless no longer can sleep there, nonetheless the city has not offered another area to be the safe spot where they can sleep and not be arrested for trespassing or sleeping in public property.)
For those reasons, I have decided to establish a non-profit organization to help the homeless with these issues and perhaps provide some assistance to the low-income and the elderly. It is a work in progress, but I plan to follow models that proved successful in Albuquerque and San Francisco.
Valerie, thank you for your dedication to our community and for taking the time to do this interview. We wish you much success in all your endeavors.
Thank you, Klara, for giving me this opportunity to interact with the community!
Valerie Navarrete is a proud Miami Beach resident since 1992 and Realtor-Associate since 1998. Originally from Brazil, has found South Beach to be her home. Very involved in City’s affairs, she is President of her Condo Association, former President of her Neighborhood Association, Chair of the Committee for the Homeless, Co-Chair at the Woman’s Business Council, Guardian Ad Litem volunteer, Certified & Team Leader for the Community Emergency Response Team, very active member and volunteer for the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, City Hall’s Leadership Academy and Citizen’s Police Academy graduated. She is the mother of a 15 years old son, IB student, NJROTC, soon to be Eagle Scout.
To keep informed on homelessness issues, please watch the following videos. Remember to subscribe to Valerie's YouTube channel.