Tuesday, January 26, 2016

WEEKLY COMMENTARY: Helping The Homeless Is Not As Simple As Some People Believe

On a cold November night in Times Square, several years ago, a New York City police officer encountered an older, barefooted. homeless man  The officer disappeared for a little while, then returned with a new pair of all-weather boots, and knelt to help the man put on the boots.

Soon after, this self-initiated act of kindness was reported by the New York Times and on a number of TV news programs, as well as on Facebook.  But the incident might have gone unnoticed and been forgotten had it not been for a tourist from Arizona.  Her snapshot, taken with her cell phone and posted on Facebook made that police officer an overnight hero, claimed the New York Times.

The police officer had paid $75 of his own money for the boots.  They were all-weather boots and should have fully warmed the feet of the homeless man.

The police officer never got the homeless man's name, and days later the homeless man could not be located.  "He was the most polite man I had ever met," the Times quoted the police officer as saying, adding that the man's face lit up at the sight of the boots.  The police officer said he offered him a cup of coffee, but as soon as the boots were on him. the homeless man went on his way and the police officer went back to his post.  That might have been the end of a wonderfully modern "Good Samaritan" story ---- but, was it?

A week later, the Times did a follow-up story.  Two Times reporters had been sent out to find this homeless man and learn more about him.  They found him on the Upper West Side ---- but with no boots!

Clearly, this was unexpected.  Apparently, the homeless man's situation had not been resolved simply with the gift of a new pair of boots.

The reporters asked about the absent winter boots.  "Those shoes are hidden.  They are worth a lot of money," replied the homeless man, "I could lose my life!  Don't get me wrong, I appreciate what the officer did.  I wish there were more people like that in the world."

Whatever the man's concerns about sporting a new pair of winter boots and thus possibly becoming the object of a street crime, the reporters concluded that walking barefoot in winter was the lesser of two evils in the view of this homeless man.  And they said he did seem accustomed to walking the pavement shoeless.

There are some folks who would believe that this homeless man's fortunes had been sufficiently improved simply by the gift of those new boots.  After providing protection for his cold, blistered feet, that society could simply move on, perhaps happy to pat itself on the back for a job well done.  However, the heartwarming act of kindness ---- a man opening his wallet to buy another man a pair of shoes, was not enough to keep the recipient from going barefoot.

This story, however, is even more complicated.  This homeless man had a NYC apartment but, for some reason, regularly returned to the streets.  Despite veterans benefits, Federal Section 8 assistance and Social Security, he would sit on the cold New York City pavement and, barefoot, walk its streets.

But, can we just say "It's his choice"?

What matters is that this homeless man, like thousands of others on the street, are in a country that is the richest nation in the world.  What matters is that an act of kindness ---- a man opening his wallet to buy another man shoes, was not enough to keep him from going barefoot.  Sometimes we assume the homeless operate with our values and rationality ----- they simply have had some bad breaks.  True, some homeless folks could try harder to solve their own problems.  But, there are always some who live in their own little world ---- do we just write them off?

The story of the policeman and the homeless man quickly faded, and we moved on to the next social-media sensation.  But the story continued for this homeless man, who perhaps should have garnered more lasting attention from the very beginning.

Do you think some social problems are too big for individuals to tackle alone?  Perhaps some problems, such as homelessness do require complex solutions.

The gift of shoes helps.  Cash helps.  But the more effective act of generosity, perhaps the real miracle, would have been if the millions of people who heard this story of the generous police officer trying to help a man in need, would push for better mental health services, more affordable housing, more job training ---- push for enough attention from the various levels of government for those people (like our homeless man) who need it most.  Random acts of kindness do some good, but often they are just not a sufficient solution.

These thoughts are brought to you by the CPC Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage your spiritual growth this winter.

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