deprimo-homelessNew York City Police Officer Lawrence DePrimo’s name is in the news again after he helped a man sitting on a cold sidewalk outside a Times Square area business — a man in his bare feet — by buying him a pair of warm boots, a story that got a lot of attention last week as a photo taken by a tourist of DePrimo’s good deed went viral.

His name is in the news again because more is becoming known about the man who DePrimo helped in November, including the man’s name:  Jeffrey Hillman.

It’s now coming out that Hillman has had transitional housing (known as “safe havens”) and an apartment made available to him through the Department of Veterans Affairs, along with other social services.  They are services officials say Hillman has turned down, along with offers for help from supportive relatives.

Hillman has reportedly made the decision to hide the boots that were bought for him and to continue to go shoeless, in part because of the cost of the ones that were bought for him because he’s afraid of them getting stolen.

This is not a story without its share of complications, as much as we all wanted it to be a simple, feel-good revelation.

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS:  Barefoot homeless man immortalized in photo isn’t actually homeless

As many people who know me or who’ve followed this blog for the past year know, my family has gotten involved over several years in our church’s Inner-City Outreach (ICOR) ministry to help the homeless in downtown Salt Lake City every winter, just a few city blocks away from Salt Lake City’s highest concentration of homeless people.  I’ve seen a lot of things in my time of volunteering there every year, as has anyone who’s volunteered there and gotten to know the people they’re serving.

It doesn’t surprise me that Hillman said he’s hidden the boots to keep them from being stolen.  The words “mean streets” can describe the conditions the homeless can find themselves in much too often.  ICOR’s human line of the homeless for handing out warm clothing can even require some strong words for “policing” at times.  I know, because I’ve been the one speaking them.

For those who would say that Hillman may have turned around and sold the boots himself, that does happen as well.  Our ICOR volunteers have even had people tell them that the items they’re handing out are sometimes sold by those asking for them.  I remember asking our ICOR coordinator, Steve Binder, about that one time.  All he can do is acknowledge that it happens while sadly shrugging his shoulders, in a “what can really be done to stop it” kind of gesture.

The point is that there are people out there who do need those items, they do use them for themselves, and they are grateful to get them.  Out of all the men, women, and children out there who need help because of poverty, how do you go about deciding who is going to take what’s given and use those items as they were intended?  Do you just refuse to help them all?

Before being too critical of Jeffrey Hillman, an old saying rings true with absolutely no pun intended:  Try walking a mile in his shoes.  And don’t stop praising Officer DePrimo for his gesture of kindness and compassion.  We still need more people with that kind of compassion.

Hillman’s story points to a question that can be very hard to answer — how do we help those who at times refuse to be helped for whatever reason, whether it’s mental illness or just simply because being on the streets has become the only thing they know, and making the adjustment to a more sheltered life has become too difficult?  It happens.

CNN.COM:  Opinion — Shoes a start, but homeless need far more

One of the best ways to help the homeless is to donate directly to shelters or other agencies meant to help them with things like food or health care.  I would not recommend giving cash to a person on the streets, but instead offer information on where they can get help or offer to give them some food yourself and sit with them and get to know them while they eat that food.  Use common sense, don’t put yourself in a position where your own security is threatened.

And don’t be afraid to give of yourself through your time and your own sense of caring and compassion when you find outreach programs like ICOR.  The DePrimo story reminds me of another time — back in early December 2009, three years ago tomorrow to be exact — when we saw another person walking the streets of Salt Lake City in the snow and cold, needing something much better on their feet than the old, worn pair of light shoes they were wearing.  That person’s happiness and gratitude won’t soon be forgotten.

How do you turn someone like that away when they need help?

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7 thoughts on “How do we help the homeless?

  1. Thank you for the ‘pingback,’ but even more for helping to promote a fairer, more even-handed discourse regarding the homeless, the displaceed, the impoverished, and the simply abandoned mentally ill.

    The fact that Mr. Hillman has, at times, refused aid, does not surprise me. It could be because of mental illness, or it could even be due to… sanity… You see, a great many “conditions” are often placed on those of us caught in “social services hell” by not-so-cheerful givers, “religious” folk who have never suffered a day of want in their lives, and all of their soul-less bureaucracies. This is why even some “sane” people choose to live in their cars, alleys, or abandoned buildings.

    We need to ask ourselves why it is only “providers,” and a few recently-compensated “receivers” praising “the system.” Most people, when discuusing the homeless and displaced (among whom I now number), don’t know what they’re talking about.

    And I pity Mr. Hillman all the more now that I’ve learned he is a veteran… There is no excuse for how shamefully we treat our veterans…

    1. Thanks for the comments, Vivien. I just checked out your blog a little bit more and I like your style there. Keep it up! I’m sorry to see that you are among the homeless and/or displaced. That possibility is very much on my mind when it comes to me and my own family right now as well … not a very jolly way to spend a Christmas season, but that’s how it can be for a lot of people. Feel free to share your own story about your own struggles here as well, the forum’s open.

      Take care!

  2. Thank you so much! And I find it interesting that you express having concerns for you and your family because a very wise woman recently told me that there are more people “on the precipice” than I could ever imagine, and that there are even more who have made it back “from there,” but neither group talks about it. I certainly hope that things will start looking up for you and yours soon. And remember: You can survive (though it’s preferable to “thrive”) on much, much less than you ever imagined. I don’t celebrate Christmas, myself, but I know that its ‘spirit’ truly depends on nothing else but your hearts. So, I truly wish you your best Christmas ever…

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