A case study

You have probably heard the story of the shoeless beggar found on a New York City street by a NYPD officer. A passerby photographed NYPD Officer Lawrence DePrimo kneeling beside the man on a cold November night in Times Square, giving him a pair of boots. The photo, shot by tourist Jennifer Foster on her phone, went viral. I originally found the story here via ABC News. The story was held out as demonstrating the power of one random act of kindness, as in the video posted with ABC’s account.

The New York Times updated the story over the weekend, identifying the shoeless beggar:

His name is Jeffrey Hillman, and on Sunday night, he was once again wandering the streets — this time on the Upper West Side — with no shoes.

The $100 pair of boots that Officer DePrimo had bought for him at a Skechers store on Nov. 14 were nowhere to be seen.

“Those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money,” Mr. Hillman said in an interview on Broadway in the 70s. “I could lose my life.”

Mr. Hillman, 54, was by turns aggrieved, grateful and taken aback by all the attention that had come his way — even as he struggled to figure out what to do about it.

“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.”

How did Mr. Hillman hit the skids? He doesn’t provide the Times a direct answer:

He was reluctant to talk about how he ended up on the streets, staring blankly ahead when asked how his life went off course.

After a long pause, he shook his head and said, “I don’t know.”

Since Mr. Hillman’s bare feet became famous, other people reported seeing him without shoes — one even after Officer DePrimo’s gift — and one woman said she had bought him a pair of shoes a year ago. Whatever the case, Mr. Hillman seemed accustomed to walking the pavement shoeless.

He was panhandling on Sunday night and carried a cup with a few coins inside.

The Times lets this update speak for itself. At the least, however, it raises a few interesting questions. Is the problem of poverty in the United States a lack of resources? Is the problem of homelessness the lack of a home? Doesn’t the man who wants “a piece of the pie” (hey, it’s only fair) badly need treatment that would have been forced on him in less enlightened times? And is he helped by helped by those who fill his tin cup? How is he to be helped?

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