Downtown Miami

Formerly homeless residents chip in for an honorable burial of one of their own

Ralph Mitchell talks about his friend as he plays a game of checkers with Mildred Wilson at the Brownsville House on Thursday, June 11, 2015. Lazaro Valdivia, 53, died on Mother’s Day. The Brownsville Christian Housing Center community of friends-turned-family chipped in to give Valdivia a proper burial.
Ralph Mitchell talks about his friend as he plays a game of checkers with Mildred Wilson at the Brownsville House on Thursday, June 11, 2015. Lazaro Valdivia, 53, died on Mother’s Day. The Brownsville Christian Housing Center community of friends-turned-family chipped in to give Valdivia a proper burial. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Lazaro Valdivia, 53, died on Mother’s Day.

No wife, child or parents were around to grieve for the Cuban immigrant, whose remains were destined to end up like a pauper’s — without a memorial or burial service — at a crypt reserved for the homeless.

A man who made it as far as the second grade and only knew how to write his name, Valdivia lived a life of destitution like the Cuban Saint Lazarus or San Lazaro — begging, sleeping on the streets, surviving on a bare minimum, often going hungry.

On his last day on earth, however, he did have a home, as well as neighbors and friends who treated him like family and were, despite their own poverty, determined to change his destiny. They gave him an honorable sendoff.

Valdivia’s journey

For the last 10 years of his life, Valdivia lived at Brownsville Christian Housing Center among dozens of formerly homeless men and women who, like him, had battled drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, physical disabilities and a myriad of other problems that had kept them on the streets.

For these residents, the Brownsville House provides not only a roof to live under but an opportunity to live as a family, something many had not belonged to in a long time.

“This is like the last house left for us, man,” said 50-year-old Ralph Mitchell, a former crack addict. “This is the last opportunity. We don’t want to sleep on the streets no more because it’s cold out there. I don’t smoke crack because I don’t need it no more. Now I have food, I have some money in my pocket and at 50, I am learning how to regrow again. We are learning how to live again.”

Joseph Thompson, who started doing drugs when he was 13, spent 26 years on the streets before joining Brownsville. He also spent three years at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s ICU for drug related burns.

“This is my second home. The only home I now know because both my parents are dead. They died while I was on drug treatment,” he said. “The last time I saw my mother she had a smile on her face because she knew I was getting help and that gives me the strength and inspiration to keep going with my life. Brownsville means a lot to us. It has personally given me another shot at life and to be part of a family. I wouldn’t trade this for nothing.”

“We are one here and it’s great. It is a home to us. May God bless,” said Mildred Wilson, 50, who spent 28 years on the streets and now keeps a tidy home, scented with air fresheners and assorted fruits that sit in a bowl next to her bed.

Located in a small gated community at 4700 NW 32 Ave., the Brownsville Christian Housing Center is made up of 74 efficiencies painted in gray and surrounded by a chain-link fence. Each unit has a kitchen, bathroom, a twin bed, and an air conditioning unit. It is run by Camillus House and gets part of its funding from county proceeds of a one-percent food and beverage tax. Residents must pay 30% of adjusted gross income as part of their client contribution.

On any given day, a resident may be sitting on the lone picnic table on the lawn. Or a group may gather under the shade of a ficus tree, engrossed in tittle-tattle punctuated with occasional laughter and high fives.

Inside, two 42-inch screen televisions sit on opposite corners of the Common Room. The two other corners are occupied by shelves filled with self-help books such as Mike Courtney’s “Failure and How I Achieved It: A Journey from Addiction to Hope.”

This is where residents congregate after work, often to share a meal, play checkers or simply catch up. It is also where Valdivia used to meet many of the residents and engage them in discussions about life and never giving up on hope.

“He used to talk to everyone,” said Wilson. “He was a nice guy. He was part of us and we were part of his life, too.”

Valdivia’s burial

Valdivia referred to his neighbors as friends and family. They lived up to that billing when he died.

His remains were supposed to be disposed of in the same manner as others in the same predicament usually are. His body was to be taken to the county morgue and wait for three months to process required paperwork and in case family showed up to claim the body.

Then the body would be cremated, ashes collected in an urn and, following a short prayer by a priest, placed in a crypt that Camillus House, through the Catholic Church, reserved at Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery in Doral.

“Camillus House does not have it in their budget to really put up a full funeral service for every resident who passes away and does not have a family,” said Esta Tudela, a case manager at the facility.

When Valdivia slumped into a two-month diabetic coma at Hialeah Hospital, the entire home was worried. When he awoke a week before his death, Tudela said, everyone prayed for his return. When he died, they refused to allow his remains to spend 90 days at the morgue before the unclaimed body was sent to the incinerator.

So residents pulled together what they could afford and managed to raise $1,100 within a week to pay for a memorial service and an early cremation. Most everyone from the Brownsville House showed up to pay their last respects. Many shed tears.

“I helped Lazaro because I don’t believe that anyone should die alone and be put away by the county if they have friends around them,” said Nancy White, one of 60 Brownsville House residents who contributed to Valdivia’s burial. “When I moved here six years ago, he was the first person who started talking to me so we stuck as friends ever since.”

“Here, we know we only have ourselves and when we die no one is going come to us,” said Mitchell, the former crack addict. “So we’ve got to come to ourselves.”

Irene Francesca Rodriguez, 66, said: “Lazaro was Cuban. If we had had a free Cuba like it used to be, nobody would have had to come to exile and Lazaro would have got his proper burial there with his family. It was a moral duty for me to help with this because I will be in the same situation when my time comes.”

Valdivia’s ashes will rest at Our Lady of Mercy.

“I didn’t believe it would be achievable because the residents live on fixed incomes of between $600 and $800 a month and have to pay their bills,” said Tudela. “It is a strong bond that makes someone with such an income give out $200 or even $50. It was love, it was caring about each other and it was really touching.”

Isaac Imaka is an Alfred Friendly Press Partners Fellow. He works for the Daily Monitor, Uganda's top independent newspaper.