On a frigid November night in Times Square, 54-year old Jeffrey Hillman, a seemingly homeless panhandler wearing a thin, dirty coat and red scarf, shakes a cup of loose change at passing tourists. Some jeer at him. His shabby pants are torn and several sizes too small. His feet are bare and covered with large, open blisters.
Touched by Hillman’s tragic condition, Jennifer Foster (a tourist from Florence, Arizona) desperately wants to help. But when she finally gets up enough courage to approach him, she finds an NYPD officer already kneeling beside Hillman with a pair of new winter boots and socks. Unseen by both Hillman and the officer, Foster captures the heartwarming picture with her phone’s camera. The story might have ended there; countless acts of kindness seen and unseen happen in this city of over eight million people. But Foster, whose father served as a police officer, decides to send the photo and a thank you note to the NYPD. In turn, the NYPD posts the photo to its Facebook page and within hours tracks down the police officer: Lawrence DePrimo. The photo goes viral with users “liking” it over 420,000 times, and DePrimo is hailed a hero.
But life in New York is a not a fairy tale; this is not a tidy happily-ever-after story. Just as DePrimo embodies the selflessness of many of New York City’s finest, Hillman embodies the complicated problem of New York City’s homeless population; he proves there is no easy cure.
Days after Foster’s photo became an internet sensation, reporters finally find Hillman near 79th street and Broadway. The shoes are nowhere to be seen, and soon they discover that Hillman is homeless only by choice. A city agency says Hillman has a Bronx apartment subsidized by Federal vouchers and Social Security and veterans benefits. His family claims they had no idea about Hillman’s situation and would gladly help him out. But Hillman refuses to live in the apartment, refuses his family’s aid, and apparently refuses to wear his new shoes.
“Those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money. I could lose my life,” Hillman tells The New York Times reporters. However, he gratefully admits, “I appreciate what the officer did, don’t get me wrong. I wish there were more people like him in the world.” He also evinces frustration that the NYPD posted his photo without his permission. “I was put on YouTube, I was put on everything without permission,” he says. “This went around the world, and I want a piece of the pie.” But would a piece of the pie really fill Hillman’s stomach?
Hillman cannot remember what series of events led to him becoming homeless. A New Jersey native, Hillman graduated high school as a basketball star and later served five years in the army until his honorable discharge. He has two children (Nikita, 22, and Jeffrey, 24), though he notes that he has not contacted them in over three years. He also has family in Pennsylvania. His brothers, Kirk (a church administrator) and Alfred (a college professor), did not know about Hillman’s woeful situation until reading about it in a news story.
Kirk explains that Hillman calls once a year to let his family know he is okay, but never goes into details about his monetary situation. According to a story in the New York Post, Kirk and Alfred did know that Hillman declared bankruptcy in 1993 after a series of state tax liens in New Jersey, but they did not know Hillman now lives on the streets. Many members of his family are now offering support. A niece in Maryland has opened her home to Hillman, but it is doubtful whether he will take up the offer. A close high school friend, Rev. John Graf Jr., after learning about Hillman’s plight, started the Jeffrey Hillman Survivors Fund. He told the New York Daily News, “It’s not fair, but a lot of things in life aren’t fair. But I’m not going to sit back and just let him be another homeless person.”
But Graf’s efforts may end as fruitlessly as DePrimo’s. Hillman proves that even if the city gave every homeless person a free apartment, many of the poor would still return to the streets. Hillman’s situation raises a host of questions. Should the state issue a court order that forces Hillman to keep off the streets for his own health and safety? Or does he deserve the freedom to choose his own lifestyle? Should DePrimo have gotten Hillman psychiatric help rather than a pair of shoes?
In the end, Foster’s photo may have done more harm than good. Inspired by DePrimo’s actions, tourists to the city may eagerly hand over money to panhandlers (which encourages them to continue to live on the streets), rather than sending that money to charities that understand the complexities of the homelessness problem and know how to best use that money to help the city’s less fortunate. Ultimately, like the common cold, homelessness seems to be a problem that will never go away. A virus defies treatment by antibiotics, and the story of Hillman shows that homelessness ultimately defies eradication by traditional methods.
Nicole Bianchi is a senior Politics, Philosophy & Economics major. She is the opinion editor and webmaster at The Empire State Tribune. Follow her on Twitter.