By now you've probably heard about the hero NYPD officer who saw a homeless man sitting barefoot in Times Square and decided to buy him a brand new pair of shoes. It was supposed to be the feel-good story to end all feel-good stories this holiday season. But the meet-up between Officer Larry DePrimo and "homeless" man Jeffrey Hillman is starting to look more like a soap opera.
Notice how I put homeless in quotes? That's because a day after finding out that Hillman isn't actually wearing those spanking new Skechers, now there are claims that he isn't exactly homeless either. Well, sort of.
Some intrepid reporters have uncovered the fact that Hillman has been offered an apartment in the Bronx, paid for by federal Section 8 rent vouchers, veterans benefits, and Social Security disability benefits.
So a roof over his head means Hillman isn't homeless and therefore just taking advantage of that nice, kind officer, right?
Not so fast.
Hillman has access to an apartment. He even has a supportive family who would like to help him. But the guy who I gave a pass yesterday for hiding the shoes over fear that he'd be killed for them still gets some sympathy in my book.
Yes, technically he can be seen as making his own problems, gaming the system, taking advantage of kind people like Officer DePrimo who put his neck on the line out of the goodness of his heart.
And yet, this is one of the reasons we have a homelessness issue in America today. Because it takes a mental illness to tell the government you don't want an apartment, that you'd rather live on the streets.
Having access to housing doesn't mean you're not homeless. It simply makes your homelessness that much sadder, that much more heartbreaking.
Thousands of homeless people in America have supportive families who would help them. But they remain homeless because the demons in their heads make them that way.
Unsurprisingly, Hillman is a veteran. He's one of the 131,000 veterans of our military who the US Department of Veterans Affairs estimates sleep in the streets on any given night. Nearly 40 percent of all homeless men are vets, a figure that is especially striking considering vets only represent 34 percent of the adult male population in America.
The issue of homeless vets is intrinsically linked to mental illness. Many of these men (because it's predominately male veterans who end up on the streets) return from war with minds that will never be the same. They are unable to function in normal society, and so they leave.
It's hard for those of us who aren't fighting with our own minds to understand their choices, especially one like Hillman's refusal to sleep in a nice, warm bed. But that, right there, is the problem. We don't yet understand why these people make the choices they do. Even the mental health community is struggling to make sense of it, to find a solution.
We don't have our nice, simple holiday pick-me-up here. But what we have may be better. We have an honest look at one of the often ignored problems in America: what it really means to be homeless, and all the complications that come with it.
Do you consider Jeffrey Hillman homeless? Does this change what you think of this story?
Image via NYPD Facebook