Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Shoes a start, but homeless need far more

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
December 6, 2012 -- Updated 0343 GMT (1143 HKT)
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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 2209 GMT (0609 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1802 GMT (0202 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1741 GMT (0141 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT