December 9, 2012

Homeless man not wearing his new boots

Now, about a month after one of New York's Finest gave a homeless man a pair of boots and socks, there is more to the story.

To recap:  Larry DePrimo, a NYPD officer, saw a homeless man on a frigid November night, and went into a nearby shoe store and spent his own money buying insulated boots and warm socks which he then helped put on the homeless man.  A tourist from Arizona captured a picture of the officer's kindness and the rest, as they say, is history.

I wrote about this heartwarming story, not from the point of view of the officer who helped, or the tourist who got the picture, but more from a 'what would I have done' perspective (and admit that I might not have been as charitable as Officer DePrimo.).  I also found a number of other stories of police officers doing good deed, because I really think this happens more often than we realize.

Today, scrolling through one of my news services, I saw this headline:
Man given boots by NYPD officer: Street life ‘my choice’
Seems that, according to the one of the Yahoo blogs, the 'homeless' man who got the assist from DePrimo is not homeless after all. Jeffrey Hillman, 54 and a veteran, actually has an apartment where he sleeps sometimes, and he's not wearing the $75 boots but instead has them hidden so they won't get stolen.

The Yahoo story linked to one in the New York Times, which told of the again-barefoot Hillman, his military service (five years and an honorable discharge), and that a woman had previously bought him a pair of shoes.

Another story, in the NY Daily News, tells of the Bronx apartment, which is paid for by a combination of safety net programs and Hillman's veteran's benefits. It also includes more background information, including comments from an old high-school friend who has set up a fund to help get Hillman off the street.

As this saga continues to unfold, it's clear that there are no easy solutions to solving the homeless problem that cities large and small face.  For many of us, it's hard to imagine wandering the streets barefoot in the northeast in November, when you have a pair of insulated boots you could be wearing. And we don't understand why folks 'choose' the homeless life when there are options, including loving families and friends, and a variety of shelters, places for a hot meal and a warm bed, and yes, even the kindness and generosity of strangers. Why would anyone pass up these opportunities these options, and instead stay on the street? 

Sometimes none of these alternatives are viable for the homeless. For whatever reason, people make the same choice as Hillman every day, and sometimes, it ends badly.

Back in September, here in Syracuse, a homeless woman named Michelle Noce was found unconscious under a bridge, and later died; she likely had been involved in a fight over territory, a prime panhandling location. A memorial service was held; friends who knew her back in high school in a small town east of here remembered her as a completely different person than the one she had become, as did Jeffrey Hillman's high school friend.

In Syracuse, according to reports, there are an average of 423 homeless people receiving services from local organizations each night.  In New York City, the numbers are mind-boggling: over 46,000 each night in the municipal shelter system, another 5,000 in private shelters.  And there are countless others who can't or won't get into shelters.

Those that try and make a difference, whether officially (social service agencies or NGOs) or unofficially (like Larry DePrimo) have to face the possibility that their efforts will be rebuffed by the likes of Hillman and Noce.  But it doesn't mean that we should stop trying.

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