It had all the elements to be the best feel-good New York Christmas story since “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Instead, it exemplified how we feel about our relationship to the poor. It was a frigid November night when New York City police officer Larry DePrimo noticed a homeless man, shoeless, sitting on the sidewalk.
“I went up to him and I was like, ‘Where are your shoes?’ He said, ‘It’s OK officer … I’ve never had a pair of shoes … but God bless you and thank you for doing what you’re doing,'” DePrimo said.
The officer went to a nearby shoe store, bought a pair of boots and socks, knelt before the man and put the boots on his feet. The officer was unaware a tourist had photographed the encounter.
The photo went on the Internet, attracting thousands of comments and attention. The officer appeared on national television. His act of charity was praised. The recipient of the kindness quickly faded from attention as is the norm for the down and out.
Two weeks later, reporters from The New York Times tracked down the man, still shoeless. They identified him as Jeffrey Hillman, 54, who appeared neither grateful nor homeless.
“I was put on YouTube, I was put on everything without permission. What do I get?” he said. “This went around the world, and I want a piece of the pie.”
He told the reporters: “I appreciate what the officer did, don’t get me wrong. I wish there were more people like him in the world.”
Two days later, New York’s Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond revealed that Hillman had been living rent-free in an apartment since late last year. Hillman receives benefits because he is a veteran, Diamond said. He also receives benefits from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, Diamond said, adding that the apartment comes with case management services, which Hillman doesn’t use.
The reaction to the revelations was predictable. Disillusion set in, and Hillman was criticized for being ungrateful. The equation went out of balance. The “deserving poor” are expected to be grateful to their benefactors. We expect happy endings.
People felt deceived. The original understanding of a policeman’s kindness to the down and out became just another example of life in the big city.
Such cases can easily be used to ignore the cry of the poor. People began commenting online about their experiences with the homeless, how they had offered food to the homeless and were rejected by ungrateful people looking for money and refusing to work.
We may get taken, we may get scammed, but that’s the risk inherent in fulfilling our obligation. We can’t use it as an excuse. The poor don’t have to make a case for why they should be helped.
Like everything else in today’s world, it is not easy to carry out our responsibility to the poor.
We used to know neighbors and villagers as individuals who needed help. Now the poor are presented as a group, pre-approved for charity.
The kind officer vs. ungrateful street person is off-putting. What must it feel like to be God when a gift of unconditional love is not appreciated? A clue may come from the streets of New York.
Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. He can be contacted at Considersk@gmail.com.