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Did ‘barefoot homeless guy’ really deserve charity?

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Maybe you remember that photo that was all over the place a few months back, of a New York policeman giving a pair of boots to a man who was panhandling, barefoot, on a cold night. 

The photo, snapped by a tourist who posted it on Facebook, became a symbol for simple acts of kindness to strangers.  It also foisted Jeffrey Hillman — or, as he got labeled in so many headlines, “The Barefoot Homeless Man” — in to the national spotlight. 

First, news came out in December that he wasn’t actually homeless. This week, more headlines.  Lots more, focusing on the fact that he is still panhandling, and reportedly owns 30 pairs of shoes. 

So why all the fascination this one man? 

The latest media frenzy started this week after a New York Post reporter spotted Hillman at the end of a day of panhandling, and wrote an article titled “Bum Given Boots by Kind-Hearted Cop is Back to Begging Barefoot.” In the article, Hillman is described as counting a “huge wad of bills with the dexterity of a bank teller.” 

But if that is the immediate reason for the new attention on Hillman, there is also a deeper reason, that’s been around as long as there have been people in need, says Michael Katz, author of the book “The Undeserving Poor.”

“We can’t help everybody who asks. We never have enough resources for that. So in fact we have to draw lines, as difficult as drawing those lines may be,” Katz says. The lines of distinction are often drawn, says Katz, between the “deserving,” and the “undeserving.”  The “worthy” and the “unworthy.” 

Katz sees all the news reports here as efforts to adjudicate which side of the line Jeffrey Hillman falls.

The trouble, Katz says, is that when you get down to an individual life, “you begin to find that the distinction melts away.  The boundaries become truly indistinct.” 

And in the case of Jeffrey Hillman, who is a 54-year-old army veteran, with a history of mental illness and drug abuse, who has been homeless for several years but recently moved in to publicly subsidized housing, the lines are blurry too. But that’s not the point for John Graf, who grew up with Hillman in Plainfield, N.J. 

They’d lost touch after high school graduation when Hillman joined the army. More than 30 years later, last December, Graf read one of the first stories about “The Barefoot Homeless Man” and recognized his old friend. Graf reached out, and has since been helping Hillman pay utility bills and rent on a publicly subsidized apartment. 

This new batch of attention Hillman is getting “has really taken him back from what recovery we have started to make, with everyone coming to his door with cameras,” says Graf, who says he was taken out of context in the New York Post article that ran this week.  He says he is trying to help Hillman move to a new apartment to avoid further attention. 

“He’s been given gifts over the years, so he does have clothing, he does have shoes,” Graf says.  

So is Hillman deserving? Undeserving? “He’s served his country, he’s got a mental illness,” says Graf. “What are we doing as a community, as a society, to get him the help that he needs?”

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