Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Shoes a start, but homeless need far more

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 10:43 PM EST, Wed December 5, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: People moved by story of police officer who gave shoes to homeless man
  • She says kind act is great, but wealthy nations must take lead to help the homeless
  • She says in "fiscal cliff" haggling politicians must consider government's role in this issue
  • Ghitis: Some nations, like Sweden, make strides on homeless, but all should

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

(CNN) -- Americans love a hero. Everybody does. So who could resist the touching story of the New York policeman who, seeing a homeless man sitting barefoot in the cold, walked into a shoe store and bought him a new pair of all-weather boots?

The picture of clean-cut Officer Larry DePrimo kneeling before bearded, straggly Jeffrey Hillman became an Internet sensation. More than 1.6 million people saw it in the first 24 hours after the New York Police Department posted the image, which was snapped by a tourist.

Chapter 1 of this story moved millions to shed a tear, and one hopes it inspired countless acts of kindness.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis
Cop: I knew I had to help this man

Now, we have Chapter 2. And it should move us even more.

Hillman, who became much less famous than his benefactor, is barefoot once again.

And the story, as it turns out, is much more complicated than we ever thought. New York City officials say Hillman has had an apartment but, for some reason, returns to the streets.

Despite veterans benefits, federal Section 8 assistance and Social Security, he sits on the cold New York pavement and, barefoot, walks its streets.

Clearly, this is a sad situation that will not be resolved with the purchase of a new pair of shoes.

Indeed, while DePrimo deservedly received accolades and media attention, we heard almost nothing about the homeless man; there was never any reason to believe his fortunes had improved. After providing protection for his blistered feet, society simply moved on, happy to pat itself on the back for a job well done -- and just in time for Christmas.

Photos: Haunting portraits of the homeless

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly gave DePrimo a pair of cuff links. As for Hillman, Kelly flippantly explained, "We're not looking for him. He has shoes now. He's much more difficult to spot."

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Hillman, 54, has told reporters that he hid the shoes because "they are worth a lot of money." The explanation is not important. Hillman's family told a reporter that "Jeffrey has his life, and he has chosen that life."

But can the country turn its back on one of its own, a homeless military veteran, and say "it's his choice"?

Remember the homeless man with the velvet voice, Ted Williams? He, too, was rescued by a miracle. But he needed help, substance abuse treatment, before he could keep a job: before he could keep on his all-weather boots.

What matters is that Hillman, like thousands of others, in the street, in a country that, despite all its economic challenges, remains the richest nation the world has seen. What matters is that a heartwarming act of kindness -- a man opening his wallet to buy another man shoes -- is not enough to keep him from going barefoot.

Some problems are too big for individuals to tackle alone. Some problems, such as homelessness, require complex solutions. Some problems remind society that when it came together and organized, it created government.

The reminder is particularly timely now as the country's leaders negotiate over the "fiscal cliff." The talks are a political contest. But they are also about the soul of the nation. America's leaders are discussing the country's guiding philosophy. Sadly for the Jeff Hillmans of America, the weakest of the weak, America seems to have decided it has less money to help its neediest.

Other nations are undergoing similar debates about their own identity and values. America is not the only country with a homelessness problem, and charges that the United States is callous and indifferent to the poor, which I have often heard abroad, are simply false.

The U.K.-based Charities Aid Foundation, says Americans are the most generous people on earth. Last year, 65% gave money, 43% gave time, 73% helped a stranger. Despite the economic slump, three-quarters of the giving, $217 billion, came from individuals. Corporations and foundations gave $56 billion.

Those are amazing numbers. Americans should be proud.

Photos: Down and out in the south

Still, thousands sleep out in the cold. In Atlanta, just down the street from CNN's headquarters, drivers can spot homeless camps under highway overpasses. One caught fire a few weeks ago. Homeless life is stressful and dangerous.

Practically every major city in the world is home to people sleeping in the streets. An estimate of homelessness in Paris about a decade ago put the number there at 12,000. Up-to-date figures are bitterly disputed. The consensus among advocates is that numbers have climbed significantly. In the United States, 2010 census figures show some of the highest percentages of "street homeless" in California. According to those figures, New York has one homeless person for every 2,506 people, compared with one for every 259 in San Francisco.

New York authorities claim to have reduced the number of "unsheltered" individuals to about 3,000, 26% fewer than in 2005. The Coalition for the Homeless says statistics underestimate the problem.

Some studies show much higher, but that is because the term "homeless" includes people living in emergency housing. In this case, we are referring to the worst category of chronic homelessness: people who spend most nights in the streets.

Whatever the figure, more can be done.

In Sweden, a determined government effort brought the number of people living in the streets to just 280, with thousands receiving help in alternative housing. I once saw a city worker in Stockholm help a homeless man off the pavement and walk with him onto a city bus. The government seems to have a handle on the situation of each homeless individual.

Not all places are the same. Cities such as Paris and New York have many more immigrants, more newcomers with fewer connections to the community, with less of a safety net. There is also more poverty, inequality, unemployment.

The Christmas Miracle story of the police officer and the homeless man faded in an Internet minute. And then we moved onto the next social-media sensation. But it continued for the man who should have garnered more attention from the beginning.

The story is not over. Not for Jeffrey Hillman. Not for any of the homeless people in the streets of New York or Paris, Stockholm or Atlanta, whom we glimpse briefly as we move on with our lives.

The shoes help; the cash helps. But the more effective act of generosity, the real miracle, would come if the millions looking at the picture of the generous police officer trying to help a man in need wrote the perfect Chapter 3, pushing for better mental health services, more affordable housing, more job training. For enough attention from the government to those who need it most.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT