In this rhetoric-infused era of railing against entitlements, it's easy to forget that there are real people who need real help. Yet whether that help should come from one's family, one's church, one's government, or a mixture of all three, the dilemma of homelessness defies all easy answers.
And by homelessness, we're not just talking about the increasing numbers of families with kids showing up at homeless shelters for a nutritious meal and a roof over their heads. These people have found themselves running out of jobs and money, and hopefully will re-establish themselves into their community after they catch their economic breath and regroup. This version of homelessness presents a genuine problem for our economy these days, but its contributing factors are at least relatively easy to define, and even if their solutions are still painful, at least solutions exist.
With the other kind of homelessness, however, solutions can be profoundly elusive.
Might Beggars Be Choosers?
We're talking about the guys we used to call "bums;" the greasy, dirty men - few are women, although there are some - who actually refuse to stay in homeless shelters. They refuse to stay in shelters because such places can be dangerous, but also because many shelters are run by a slate of rules, and if patrons of these shelters wanted to abide by rules, they likely wouldn't be habitually homeless in the first place.
It's politically incorrect to assume that they have mental problems, but it's patently obvious that virtually all of them do. How else can you explain what seems to be their preference to choose the harsh, dangerous streets of our communities than the many outstretched arms from churches, charities, and our own government offering help?
Although the tableaux witnessed by the tourist may be heart-warming, many jaded New Yorkers have seen it all before. Hillman wasn't shoeless simply because he'd lost his previous pair, was he? Might he have bartered them away for booze or narcotics? How many other pairs of shoes might he have tricked other kind-hearted passers-by to get for him, considering he'd camped out in front of - of all places - a shoe store? What are the chances he figured it would be easier to display bare feet and play on somebody's naivete in front of a shoe store, instead of a deli or bank?
The cop fell for it, since he's relatively young, and as we've learned, lives in the suburbs. The tourists certainly fell for it, since New York City is one big playground for them, where human drama becomes much more poignant amidst the bizarre intensity of the city's urban density.
Still, the cop did a good thing, even if jaded New Yorkers have long ago learned that such altruism doesn't really last very long. And indeed, we're now learning that Hillman has since been found, shoeless yet again in Manhattan. When asked where the shoes DePrimo had bought for him had gone, Hillman won't give a direct answer, except to say that they're worth a lot of money to people of the street like himself.
If he's hidden them, as he has intimated, he's defeated the whole purpose of DePrimo's compassion and the solution that compassion sought to create: warm protection for his feet. It's not like DePrimo bought Hillman a gold necklace that should only be worn on special occasions. Shoes are functional, particularly for pedestrians in New York. If he was afraid he'd get mugged for those new shoes by other homeless people, why didn't he simply find some dirt someplace, rub his new shoes in it, scuff them up a little bit along some concrete, and instantly disguise their newness?
Chances are greater that Hillman has already hocked those shoes for more cheap liquor or hard drugs. After all, those shoes were likely the most valuable possessions he'd acquired in quite a while.
Or were they?
According to his family in Pennsylvania and Texas, who are horrified at this turn of events, Hillman's street life is something he's basically chosen for himself. He has an open invitation to return to his family at any time. It's not even like he's officially homeless. According to various social welfare agencies in New York City, Hillman has had an apartment for at least a year in the Bronx, paid for with welfare and veterans benefits.
"Homeless," my foot.
In a goofy tirade on CNN, writer Frida Ghitis blames efforts to stifle government assistance to poor people for Hillman's sad episode, but she fails to have done the research that New York's oft-reviled tabloids have done. That research confirms New York City, New York State, our Social Security Administration, and our Veterans Administration have already done a lot for Hillman. He's not one of those guys who's slipped through the cracks. In fact, the system has worked mightily for him, despite his apparent obstinacy. He even calls his family every year - content to be in control of the information they have about him, but not wanting them to be able to contact him.
So, what is this? Some sort of perverse selfishness on Hillman's part? A narcissistic grip of ambivalence towards the concern others show him, combined with the willful abuse of the government safety net that's supposed to repatriate him back into "normal" society?
Or is this sheer mental retardation of some sort? A sincere inability to grasp reality?
What's becoming increasingly clear is that Hillman's story only reinforces old stereotypes. The bums on the streets want to be there. They're probably crazy, so you shouldn't go near them, or acknowledge their presence in any way. We're throwing all this money away on people like Hillman who either don't want our help, or don't want to take the responsibility we expect recipients of public assistance to exercise as part of their social contract with the rest of us.
For lack of a better term, then, we're left with the conclusion that Hillman is crazy. Plenty of people manipulate society, but only crazy people reject society.
Then yesterday, again in New York City, and again, near Times Square, a crazed panhandler threw a man waiting for a subway onto the tracks, in front of an oncoming train. Witnesses say the victim, a middle-aged husband and father from Queens, had tried to calm down the panhandler, who reportedly was threatening other riders waiting on the platform. Tragically, the victim's widow has said he'd left their home after drinking and arguing with her, so it's unclear whether inebriation played any role in his inability to crawl up onto the platform, away from the train rushing into the station. Either way, his attacker stalked out and into Times Square, although police have detained a man in connection with this case. Whether the suspect is indeed homeless, as many eyewitnesses have assumed, remains unknown.
Granted, it's difficult to see somebody like Jeffrey Hillman working himself into the type of rage that would pick up a guy and throw him onto subway tracks. But these incidents prove that mental instability takes a variety of forms, and produces a variety of outcomes. None of which benefit anybody.
Questions of Obligation
The easy way for us to move on from these stories is to rationalize away the impact they could have on us. And to a certain extent, marginalizing these incidents because they are relatively rare, and therefore relatively unworthy of concerted attention, allows us to excuse the elusiveness of their solutions in favor of projects we know we can get done. We could drive ourselves crazy over-analyzing cases like Hillman's. Did his stint in the military injure his brain somehow? Did some romantic relationship in his life backfire badly? People who knew him when he was growing up say Hillman's life today makes no sense compared to his stable, wholesome upbringing. Did something snap? And how much did it snap?
As far as the extent of society's obligation to Hillman, it appears, at least right now, that we were doing everything we knew to do. More government, as has been suggested by some, won't have helped, unless we'd assigned Hillman with his own taxpayer-funded personal assistant, psychiatrist, and chauffeur. Could Hillman's family have done more? Maybe, and maybe not. One of his brothers works for a church, but that doesn't seem to have been any tangible benefit to him. Should it have been?
Despite all of these unanswered questions, however, should we just walk away from society's Hillmans? Yes, New Yorkers are a jaded lot, and perhaps part of the newsworthiness of this story involves a humble beat cop's spontaneous act of compassion amidst a city teeming with homeless vagrants. You want to hope that DiPrimo doesn't lose his tendency for compassion just because this episode has turned out so disappointingly. But who'd be surprised if he did?
And what is the extent to which DiPrimo actually - albeit unwittingly - enabled Hillman's behavior?
Perhaps all we can do is admit that we can't really fix stuff like this. Perhaps we need to be content in the fact that God looks at our hearts, and He judges accordingly. He knows DiPrimo's motivations, and well as Hillman's.
Maybe that's too much of a Sunday School answer, but meanwhile, if we're content to just ignore situations like these, what is God seeing in our own hearts?
Christ says the poor will always be with us. That's a hard truth, isn't it?
Meanwhile, what we can do about it may involve hard questions, too.
Update 12/6/12: Apparently, Naeem Davis, the man police have arrested for pushing Queens resident Ki-Suck Han onto subway tracks in Times Square, is indeed homeless. As a child, Davis may also have suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. At least one witness has testified that she could smell alcohol on Han's breath.