"I had two pairs of wool winter socks and combat boots, and I was cold," said DePrimo, age 25, as he recalled the encounter with an unidentified, shoeless man on the sidewalk on Seventh Avenue near 44th Street. DePrimo offered to get him socks and shoes.
"I never had a pair of shoes," the man replied, according to DePrimo, who is assigned to the Sixth Precinct and has been on the force nearly three years.
The officer walked to a Skechers store on 42nd Street and shelled out $75 for insulated winter boots and thermal socks. He returned to the man, knelt down and put the footwear on him. "He smiled from ear to ear," DePrimo said. "It was like you gave him a million dollars."
The officer asked the man if he wanted a cup of coffee, but he graciously declined and went on his way. "I didn't think anything of it," DePrimo said of his generosity.
The tourists posted the picture on their FaceBook page, which went viral, and well, so did the story. The Media were on it. DePrimo even got a spot on the Today Show, where he said, "People are saying their faith in humanity is restored and that's the biggest thing I can take away from all of this."
There, you see! Doesn't that just warm you heart? Don't you want to rush right out and buy a homeless man a pair of shoes? And, not know that anybody would even know about it, except for the fact that it's NY City and people usually snap pictures for evidence of police brutality so this was an especially nice story.
Except...... that's not the end of the story.
Just days after DePrimo bought the homeless man the shoes (said to be worth around $75), the New York Times reported that the man was out on the streets without shoes again, claiming he hid them because they were "worth a lot of money." What's more, the man wanted a perceived "piece of the pie" from the viral photo.
A few days later, it was reported by the Daily News that the man, whose name is Jeffrey Hillman, is not technically homeless but has an apartment in the Bronx secured through the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that he has turned down offers to help from both social service and family. What's more, the New York Post reported that Hillman has a history of run-ins with the law for drugs, harassment, theft, and more.
So, what's the moral of the story? Don't give to the homeless on the street? He's just evidence of one of Mitt's "takers", right? He'll just keep taking. The more you give, the more he'll take.
What then are we to make of the story Jesus told of the Good Samaritan? Near as I can figure, the Samaritan didn't ask for a background check or do a social inventory before he took care of the man left half-dead by the side of the road. Instead, he tended to the man's immediate needs and then sought out the only "social service agency" of that time: the local tavern.
Caring for those who are poor and homeless has always been a situation that is fraught with complicated ethical questions. This one is certainly exemplary of my experiences.
I am constantly amazed at the creativity and tenacity of those who are desperately poor to get what they need in a world where the odds seem continually stacked against them.
I remember a day, years ago, sitting on a park bench in Newark, NJ, enjoying the sunshine and my lunch. My eye was caught by a young woman who was carefully watching a nearby line at a the local ATM or "Automatic Teller Machine". I saw her carefully making her selection and focusing intently on a young man in a business suit.
As the young man stepped up to the ATM and inserted his card, she started to move toward him. As he was taking his money out of the machine, she approached him and said, politely, "Excuse me, sir, but I have AIDS and I just started my period. Could you help me buy some sanitary pads?"
The man recoiled in horror and threw a $20 bill at her before scurrying away.
I couldn't help it. I laughed out loud. The young girl looked at me and smiled. "Hey," she said, "a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do."
"Honey," I said, "people have been doing a lot worse than that for $20."
Like I said, it's ethically complicated.
Here's what I think. If you see a homeless man on a frigid night without any shoes and you are moved to do something about that, then I say, "God Bless." Do it. Anytime human compassion is allowed to be touched and enacted, I think the angels sing and Jesus smiles.
I think a direct encounter with suffering changes the human soul. Being able to give without controlling the outcome takes real courage that not only reflects morality but strengthens it.
I also think that asking, "Should I give shoes to a homeless man?" is asking the wrong question. The question to ask is, "Why doesn't the homeless man have shoes?" Indeed, "Why is the man homeless?"
This is why I think the story of the Good Samaritan is the model for Christian ethics. Take care of the immediate need and then refer to the appropriate community agency.
And, work with the system at local, state and federal levels to change the system to be able to provide real help to those who are in need.
The complications are that the ethical issues are both immediate and local as well as long term and universal. As Mother Theresa responded when asked what we can do about world hunger, "One. One. One. One. One." In other words, if one person takes care of one person we can abolish world hunger, one person at a time.
Officer DePrimo said, "People are saying their faith in humanity is restored and that's the biggest thing I can take away from all of this."
In this ethically complex, increasingly cynical world, that is a pretty big thing, indeed - no matter the time of year.