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Friday, December 07, 2012

All God's Children Got Shoes

No matter whether you celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas, it was a near-perfect 'miracle' story for the holiday Season. On November 14, NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo was photographed by an Arizona couple touring New York City giving a pair of boots and some warm socks to a homeless man.

"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.


RENZ said...

I am constantly reminded of - give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day; teach him to fish he'll eat forever. With the revelation that the boots appeared to be gone, my co-worker and I assumed they went to feed an addiction until we read further and them out seemed to be complicated by mental illness.
In either case, it was a gracious gesture.

I often argue that if you are moved to help someone in need try to do so without strings attached. I hear "concern"that he or she will just spend it on liquor to which I respond that alcohol addiction can be particularly horrible and if that is how he chooses to spend the money so be it.

A woman at church who winters in Milwaukee, volunteers at her church's soup kitchen and likes to spout off about those who she deems unworthy.

I tried challenging her to think that charity is for whoever shows up...that "the least of these" may also be the ones perceived as not worthy.

After all, Jesus commands us to feed the poor...not to feed only the "deserving" poor.

JCF said...

"Charity" (gifts, inc $) to homeless people is almost always a paradox.

First off, I would always ASSUME a backstory like the one above: there's usually one or more social pathologies that drive someone to homelessness.

...but I don't take a blanket "don't give $ to beggars" (title of recent book I heard about) either.

Just because new boots are about to (say) "go up his arm" doesn't mean someone (anyone, inc Officer DePrimo) was wrong to give them.

We shouldn't make "the Perfect thing to do for a homeless person" (can anyone be sure of what that is?) the enemy of "a Good&Loving thing to do for a homeless person".

Maybe the best outcome here, is the practice of generousity. Even if that practice doesn't even have the intended outcome (warm&dry feet), much less the ideal one.

We plant and water: God give the growth. God bless all givers and receivers (they are often the same) this night...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - Yes, the best outcome is the practice of generosity. Absolutely. You said it so much more succinctly than I did.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

RENZ - When I hear people say of charity to the poor "They'll just spend it on booze or drugs" I think, of Kip Tiernan, the founder of Rosie's Place in Boston for homeless women who said, "Justice is not 'three hots and a cot'. Justice is having your own key."

Anonymous said...

I was struck by the act of the officer putting the socks an shoes on his feet, not just giving them to him, but actually putting them on his feet. This is what Jesus did with the washing of the feet of the disciples. Jesus calls us to be servants to one another, not judges of whether someone is deserving poor, just to be servants.

RENZ said...

Yes, it seems to me that the moment an individual thinks about how their "donation" will be used, the focus shifts from the need of the receiver to the "giver of the charity." Sort of like our own private photo op "for God" a la Mark Ryan and the soup kitchen.

I say give and give generously and however the receiver CHOOSES to make use of your gift, you have given wisely.

Wish we had a better system for providing a combined system of mental healthcare and shelter for the indigent.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well said, Anonymous. Next time, please leave your name. Thanks.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

RENZ - You know, I was a brand new nurse when Psychiatric hospitals began to close. While many of them were, in fact, snake pits and ought to have been closed, what we have now are people with mental illness who are roaming the streets.

What we need is better understanding of and effective treatment for mental illness.

Anonymous said...

I just got off the phone with an elderly relative who told me that the man was not homeless and did not need the shoes. She then proceeded to lecture me about giving my money away to the "so called" poor. I did not argue with her. Afteer all I was told not to argue with my elders. But, my head hurt. I do not have enough time, or will power, to guess who is "really" needy and who is not. If they ask and I can help, I think I should. On Judgment Day I doubt I will be admonished by God for helping. Isn't this bringing in the Kingdom of God? Your thoughts please.
No name this time. Sorry.

RENZ said...

Amen, Elizabeth. Don't know if you know that I am a nurse.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Anonymous - I think, if you read my post again, you'll see that I agree with you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

RENZ - No, I didn't. Not surprised. You are a very compassionate and caring person.

Greta Getlein (@MotherGreta) said...

My church participates in the local Midnight Run operation once a month (the run is twice a week all year round) distributing clothing and food to New Haven's street residents. In the last two runs we have focused on collecting blankets and sleeping bags as the nights up here are getting pretty cold. And, for the last two months, as we have given away the many blankets and sleeping bags donated by our fabulous parishioners I have been struck by those street residents who decline taking one because someone else needs it more. There is charity even among those who receive it. The Holy Spirit moves among us, surprising, sustaining, feeding, sheltering. I am happy to work alongside her.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

MotherGreta - I think the Holy Spirit loves it best when humans show compassion to other humans.

textjunkie said...

Thanks for posting this! I was thinking about it all Sunday morning and yesterday a guy who ran out of gas and was begging in the parking lot got a free tank of gas from me (nice guy, out of work, trying to get home, the usual). I have the advantage of knowing my generosity went to a good cause, but nonetheless, he's got you to thank for it. ;) (p.s. I have a really hard time with your captcha codes, for some reason).

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for that wonderful story. I think I feel best when I buy a meal and sit with someone while they eat or buy a bus ticket and see someone get on the bus. But, it takes real courage to do something for a stranger and not know what they will do with your generosity. That's when my compassion is really put to the test.