Every now and then, there is a story which actually happened and could only happen in New York City. On November 14, 2012, a very cold night, while New York City police officer Lawrence DePrimo was on patrol in Times Square, he came across a homeless man who was barefoot sitting on the ground. The officer went into a nearby shoe store, bought a pair of socks and a pair of boots for the homeless man and helped the man put them on his highly infected feet. The scene was witnessed by a tourist who took a picture with his cellphone and posted the picture on the web to be seen by myriads of people.
Officer DePrimo later called his mother to tell her what he had done. He paid $75 from of his own pocket to buy the $100 boots (the store manager was aware of whom the boots were for and gave the officer an employee discount of $25).
The story was covered by all of the media and Officer DePrimo was congratulated by the Mayor and the Police Commissioner. On December 2nd, a Sunday night, the homeless man, Jeffrey Hillman, who had come to New York City about ten years ago and had been living on its streets for most of the time, reappeared on the Upper West Side, sans boots or footwear. A New York Times article by Marc Santora and Alex Vadukul reported Mr. Hillman said, “Those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money…I could lose my life.” What actually happened to the boots in no way detracts from Officer DePrimo’s magnificent generosity and yes, his love for a fellow human being.
Irrespective of all else, I thought it would be wonderful if President Obama invited Officer DePrimo to the White House and had him stay over in the Lincoln Bedroom. I suggest his mom be invited as well, along with a “significant other,” if there is one.
When I was Mayor, we had a huge problem of homeless individuals, men and women. Many of the women had developed the shopping bag syndrome and constantly carried bags of detritus having no use at all. They would not come into the shelters that we provided out of fear. I arranged to have many of the churches and synagogues offer their buildings for use by these women with the City paying them for the costs of energy and providing the beds and blankets with the religious institutions providing the volunteers to care for them through the night.
The problem of taking care of these people who were beset with problems of alcohol and drug addiction and even more difficult mental illness was difficult to say the least. I recall one night at 1:00 a.m., being awakened at Gracie Mansion by a call from a reporter who said he was down at Grand Central talking with an elderly woman who was lying on the floor and he thought I was the only one – as Mayor – who could get her to come to one of our facilities. He asked would I “please come down to Grand Central?”
Of course, I did, driving down at that hour with one of my security detectives. There she was, lying at the door on the ground. As I walked over, I said, “I’m Mayor Koch, and I’d like to help you and take you to one of our homes for a good night’s rest and dinner.” She said, “I know who you are and you can’t make me go.” I replied, “Of course not.” It had to be a voluntary decision on her part. By that time, Jack Krauskopf of the Human Resources Administration had arrived. About a half-hour later, around 2:30 a.m., he said, “go home, Mayor. I’ll take care of it.” I spoke with him the next morning and asked what happened. He said “She wouldn’t go with me, so I called a psychiatrist who lived in Great Neck. He came in, looked at her, asked her some questions, and then wrote a note which he handed to me. The note said she is not capable of making intelligent decisions which meant we could take her against her will.” I didn’t ask him how much the psychiatrist’s fee was.
Dealing with homeless people with their myriad of personal problems has always been a difficult problem for any city. I believe we probably do it better than many other cities. It is very costly; the programs run into the millions of dollars, but they are absolutely necessary if a city is meeting its obligations to those most in need and at risk.
Jeffrey Hillman obviously needs more than a pair of boots to get him back on his feet. The Times article mentioned that he has two children “Nikita, 22 and Jeffrey, 24, but has had little contact with them since a visit three years ago.” Let’s hope those two children will now come forward and help. I also remember what my mother said to me when I was an adolescent, “How is it that one mother can take care of seven children, and seven children can’t take care of one mother?” Let’s hope two can take care of one father. Apparently, he is an army veteran, of which war I do not know, adding to the tragedy.