Compassion fatigue

You may have seen this news item about the New York cop who bought a pair of boots for a barefoot homeless man. A passerby observing the scene snapped a quick photo with her cell phone and posted it to the NYPD Facebook site, where it quickly went viral. Quite a heart-warming story about one man doing another man a good turn.

NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo presents a pair of new boots to Jeffrey Hillman on Nov. 14, 2012. Photo by Jennifer Foster/AP

NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo presents a pair of new boots to Jeffrey Hillman on Nov. 14, 2012. Photo by Jennifer Foster/AP.

But the homeless guy, Jeffrey Hillman, is not actually homeless, as it turns out, and he is still barefoot. Why? He hid the boots, he said, because “They are worth a lot of money—I could lose my life.” For a $100 pair of boots? Sure, people have been killed for less on the mean streets of the big city. Maybe he left them at home in the closet of his Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing apartment while he was out trying to exploit whatever milk of human kindness is left in New York City.

Jeffrey Hillman, who continues to walk the streets of New York barefoot, impersonating a homeless person. Photo by Robert Caplin for The New York Times.

Jeffrey Hillman continues to walk the streets of New York barefoot, impersonating a homeless person. Photo by Robert Caplin for the New York Times.

I have to admit, this story makes me angry on several levels. Angry that anyone has to live in a world where a pair of boots is worth more than a human life. Angry that police brutality toward the homeless is so much the norm in nearly every metropolitan area that this one act of kindness by a cop has caused a global sensation.

But I am especially angry that Hillman is sitting out on the street begging for charity that he apparently does not actually need and will not accept. He’s now also claiming that his photo was used without his permission and he seems to think he is owed something for that. “This went around the world, and I want a piece of the pie,” he says. To do what with? Probably not to buy a cheap pair of boots or even regular shoes because that is evidently not how he rolls.

Adam Martin writes in New York Magazine that Hillman’s response to the officer’s gift doesn’t diminish the value of the gesture. “We’d much rather live in a world where people are inclined to do nice things for strangers than in one where everybody’s a jerk because they’re afraid of getting scammed.” Well, I guess I’m a jerk, then, because I am always afraid of getting scammed. Stories like this are why I don’t give money to panhandlers and have no patience with anybody who solicits money from strangers. There is too much misrepresentation and fraud out there for me to trust that anybody who puts out their hand really does need my help.

I guess I just don’t believe that a guy who is just going to sit on a street corner under false pretenses and wait for somebody to give him something is ever going to do anything productive with what he receives. That is not a person who wants or needs a hand up to better his station in life in any way; he only wants a handout that will allow him to stay right where he is. There’s nothing helpful about that.

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6 thoughts on “Compassion fatigue

  1. Very accurate conclusion. Sad fact is that there are hundreds of thousands of Hillmans. They may not park themselves on the sidewalks but they’re there.

  2. Pingback: Ask JHP: Recovering from Burnout (Compassion Fatigue)

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