One cold night in November, NYPD officer Lawrence DePrimo was walking his post when he noticed a shoeless man on the New York streets. Wearing two pairs of socks himself and still cold, Officer DePrimo knew the man must have been freezing. After talking to the man and finding out his shoe size, Officer DePrimo entered a shoe store and bought a pair of boots for the man. When he came outside to give the man the shoes, a tourist captured the moment with her cellphone camera and the simple act of kindness became a social media sensation. The officer, the photographer, and the shoeless man became instant celebrities.
Weeks later, the shoeless man—whose name is Jeffrey Hillman—was seen again, sans shoes. The boots Officer DePrimo has bought for him were nowhere to be found. Hillman, far from being the street derelict so many took him to be, knew well enough that his overnight celebrity status made the boots far more valuable than simple clothing. When asked what happened to them, Hillman replied, “Those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money. I could lose my life.” Savvy words for a New York City panhandler.
It turns out that Hillman is an Army veteran who was honorably discharged in 1983 after serving for five years as a food service specialist. After working in food service in New Jersey, Hillman became homeless. He is the father of two children, now grown at 22 and 24 years old, and doesn’t really know where his life “went off course.” When asked how he went from being an Army veteran father of two to a homeless wanderer of the streets of New York, Hillman could only answer, “I don’t know.”
One thing Hillman does know though is that his face and situation are now national news. His story and the photo of Officer DePrimo giving him the boots have been splashed all over the web, via Facebook and YouTube, and his previously anonymous existence will never again be a possibility. Hillman is grateful to Officer DePrimo for the shoes and his kindness—in fact he says he wishes more people like him were in the world—he is not especially pleased with his overnight stardom. Hillman said: “I was put on YouTube, I was put on everything without permission. What do I get? This went around the world, and I want a piece of the pie.” Good point. While Officer DePrimo is getting a lot of the attention for being an all-around great guy, Hillman is getting nothing more than notoriety for being homeless. His frozen feet are now his most lucrative assets, to the point that he can’t even risk being seen wearing the boots, lest some other street entrepreneur attempts to remove them from him. Hillman may not have a YouTube or a Facebook account, yet he well knows the power that they can wield. He never asked to be famous, but now he is.
The entire scenario, as heart-warming and harmless as it appears on the surface, reveals a much deeper issue regarding the homeless. Hillman is not unique in his situation. Some people are homeless through no fault of their own and want nothing more than to get back into being a productive member of society. However, these individuals are not the vast majority of panhandlers and street people. Most, like Hillman, want nothing more than to be “invisible,” free of obligation to society and free to do what they please. They use pity as a weapon to guilt individuals into throwing some money into their cup, but they really have no intention of getting back into the American workforce; they are homeless and jobless by choice. In fact, panhandling IS their job and they aren’t looking for a career change any time soon. Hillman’s cover has been blown by his instant celebrity and he doesn’t know what to do with it. For him, there is no going back. The freedom he sought in homelessness and anonymity has been taken away by one well-meaning citizen with a cellphone. And despite his change in social media status, Hillman’s financial status has not duly changed. It is the worst of all possibilities for someone who was willing to sacrifice financial freedom for social freedom; now he has neither.