Dangerous charity: NYPD cop’s gift of shoes meets the reality of homelessness

I have been giving interviews on #OccupytheBible, and the more conservative a interviewer is, the more I am challenged on the question of the Jubilee.  Instead, the interviewer tries to argue, ‘Jesus didn’t want us to change society, but just give a little more.’

Folks who hold this view just love this photo of an NYPD officer, Lawrence DePrimo, who bought a part of shoes for a Jeffrey Hillman, a barefoot, homeless man in Times Square.

NYPD officer Lawrence DePrimo gives shoes to Jeffrey Hillman, who is homeless and barefoot

NYPD officer Lawrence DePrimo gives shoes to Jeffrey Hillman, who is homeless and barefoot

This tourist photo went viral almost immediately to great Internet outpourings of warmth fuzzies about this inspiring act during the Christmas season.

It was, indeed, a kindly act by this policeman.

But, the systemic causes of homelessness, even of being poorly clothed on the street, are not so easily dealt with.

Hillman is still on the street, and he is back to being barefoot.  He told The New York Times that he had hidden the shoes.  “Those shoes are hidden. They are worth a lot of money,” Mr. Hillman said in an interview on Broadway in the 70s. “I could lose my life.”

The fickle Internet has now produced grumbling that Hillman is “ungrateful” and backlash against the homeless community has begun.

Oh, come on.

When Jesus starts his ministry calling for “good news to the poor (Luke 4:18ff), he’s not just recommending individual acts of charity.  Jesus announces “the year of the Lord’s favor,” that is, the biblical Jubilee. Jesus time (and our own) need a structural change to get at the more intractable issues of extremes of wealth and poverty.  That’s Jubilee.

This is a hard point for people to understand, especially when religious and political conservatives have been pushing the “it’s up to the individual to be charitable” approach to reading the Bible.

When we take a “Jubilee” approach to Hillman’s homelessness, many more issues may become apparent. Hillman served in the army starting in 1978, producing “a worn veteran’s identification card that confirmed his service” according to the Times article. He did not respond to questions about why he became homeless.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that on any given night 76,000 veterans are homeless.

The causes are complex and require multiple strategies to address them.  Those veterans with “the most severe physical and mental health disabilities—often caused by their service—require permanent housing with supportive services.”

Whatever the causes of Mr. Hillman’s homelessness, an individual act of charity cannot begin to address his situation, and may even put him at risk on the streets.

We need a Jubilee approach because our whole society is broken; these extremes of wealth and poverty cannot be addressed only with individual charity.

About Susan Thistlethwaite

I am a Professor of Theology and former President of Chicago Theological Seminary; I blog here, at the Huffington Post, and at other venues. I am a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. I am interested in what I call "public theology," or how deeper meaning is made and contested in the public square.
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One Response to Dangerous charity: NYPD cop’s gift of shoes meets the reality of homelessness

  1. Ilima Davis says:

    that fellow without shoes has a deep problem that needs to be addressed. it is related to “hoarding”. i was married to a man who came out of a deprived childhood. he colllected and hung on to anything he could get for free. it is a fear of going hungry and without. this could even be related to PTSD. the trauma of the past won’t let go until it is dealt with by counselling and alot of patience and love. the trust is gone in those people. but it can be restored if we care as a society and as neighbors and individuals. this problem is however easier to treat than someone who has turned to drug addiction.

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