The Barefoot Homeless Man in New York
Last night around 7:30 I received a call around asking if I was available to take a last-minute assignment in my neighborhood. I was told that one of the NY Times reporters had happened upon the now-famous barefoot homeless man, Jeffrey Hillman, who was given a new pair of boots by a generous NYPD officer last week. The exchange was caught on film by a tourist and the photo went viral after it was shared on the NYPD’s Facebook Page gaining hundreds of thousands of likes, shares, and comments.
Of course I had seen the photo as it was on the cover of many newspapers, magazines, and television shows worldwide. It painted a picture of generosity and sympathy for the homeless population and was great publicity for the NYPD and Officer DePrimo.
In taking the assignment, I was intrigued to meet him and see how his sudden celebrity had effected him. I was shocked, though, to find him just blocks from my apartment near one of my favorite grocery stores, Fairway Market, still standing barefoot and begging for change on the cold, dirty NYC sidewalk.
When I arrived, the NY Times reporter was already speaking with him as I approached. In the well-to-do Upper West Side neighborhood, Jeffery stuck out like a sore thumb in torn and soiled clothes that were hanging off of him. As I listened to him speak with the reporter and myself, I couldn’t help but feel a knot build up in my throat.
He explained that he’d hidden the boots because he feared they’d get stolen by other homeless if he was seen wearing them. He explained that he’d hidden them in a “safe place” somewhere outside and went on to say that there are many places one could hide objects that could never be found.
What gripped me was his genuine fear of being robbed of his possessions and the fact that he was very able to articulate those feelings to us. He was hesitant to give us his name at first or really dive into his past because he didn’t know what to make of this publicity, so it took some time to let him get familiar with me before I really started taking my photos.
He explained he’s been in NYC for about a decade, was from New Jersey, and previously was a cook in the Army where he served as a food specialist in the US and Germany. He even pulled out his tattered veteran’s card, which was hidden in a black plastic bag under his shirt by his heart, to confirm his story.
While Jeffery was being interviewed, I witnessed dozens of people walking by doing double takes as they realized he was barefoot in the cold. I could hear many of those people saying “oh that’s him!”…and maybe 4-5 people stopped to confirm it was. Some expressed concern for him and others said that he was crazy and refused to wear shoes, even offering stories about how they’d tried to help in the past to no avail, he always continued to walk barefoot and beg, and there was nothing that could be done to help him.
I was iffy about blogging about my experience because I don’t want to make it seem as though I’m exploiting a homeless man. Rather, I wanted to share with my readers the fact that folks like Jeffery need help. My hope is that someone who is in a position, perhaps with US Veterans Affairs, can step in and give Jeffery the help he needs, whether it’s food, a place to stay, or psychiatric evaluation. He is a veteran and deserves that much.
This was an experience I won’t soon forget. It made me really appreciate what I have. I hope my pictures and story do the same for you…and if you know someone that can help, please share!
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