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Meghan Ward

I'm a freelance writer and book editor represented by Andy Ross of the Andy Ross Literary Agency. You can read an excerpt of my memoir, Paris On Less Than $10,000 A Day, and visit my website for more info about me.

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Lawrence DePrimo: Why Aren’t We All Buying Shoes for the Homeless?

By now you’ve probably heard about Lawrence DePrimo, better known as the “the shoe cop,” or the cop who bought the homeless man in Times Square a $100 pair of boots. The photo, which has gone viral and which has been featured by every major news outlet, depicts DePrimo kneeling down to offer the man a pair of shoes that he bought moments before from the shoe store next door after seeing the man sitting barefoot with blisters on his feet on a cold night in New York City. People have been driven to tears by this photo. And it is, no question, heartwarming that the policeman, rather than making a mental note to ask his Facebook friends if anyone had an old pair of size 13 shoes they could spare, didn’t let that man pass one more night without shoes. He went out that very minute, spent $100 of his own money, and gave the man some warm socks and boots. He even put them on the man himself.

But here’s my question: Why is this national news? Why is it so rare in this country that people stop and ask a homeless person what they need that when one man does, the whole country breaks down in tears?

A new homeless man arrived in our neighborhood a few months ago. I took an interest in him because he never asks anyone for money. He has a donation box by his side, but he just sits there, not bothering anyone, all day every day, making art. His art is made from discarded clothes hangers and plastic bottles, and it’s not very good, but I like it the way I like my kids’ preschool art—because they put so much time into it and because it means a lot to them. I have a couple of pieces Doc (that’s what he calls himself) made in our house, and my kids love them. They were even inspired to make their own pipe cleaner sculptures after I brought them home, a couple of which they gave to Doc.

I don’t know much about Doc. He won’t tell me where he came from, where he was born, where he grew up, or what he did in his former, non-homeless life. I think he was born in Australia—he mentioned it but then denied it—and he did tell me that he’s been homeless for 25 years and hasn’t had a girlfriend for 36. He doesn’t trust anyone, and he doesn’t want any kind of rain-proof tarp or cover to sleep on or in because he’s “a soldier” and would rather sit up all night in the rain feeling miserable than try to sleep in the rain. (He used the word “miserable” to describe his sitting up all night in the rain last night.) He says all that matters to him is his work (making sculptures) and that he plans to continue living this way, doing his work, until he dies. I asked if he was happy and he said, “No, I’ve never been happy. But happiness doesn’t matter to me. I don’t think about it.” In some ways, I think we have a lot to learn from Doc. Happiness, I believe, is overrated, but I’ll save that for another blog post.

I’ve bought Doc new pants, shoes, socks, T-shirts, underwear, and a warm fleece jacket. I’ve offered him blankets and rain gear, but he turned those down. He wears the fleece I bought him under his dirty old fleece, but he doesn’t wear the pants at all, and he returned the shoes to me, saying he was picky about shoes and preferred to have another pair like the ones he has—which are very old and worn, but worth about $100 new. I’m thinking about getting them for Christmas. My only worry is that they’ll go the way the pants went—which is, I think, buried in a box beneath a plastic tarp. Sometimes I wonder if Doc prefers to look dirty to get more donations. I can’t say I blame him.

Sometimes Doc asks me to buy him food because he says the restaurants don’t want to serve him. But he never asks me to pay. He always offers me money (which I don’t take), and he always has junk food on hand. I offered him a banana once and he turned it down, but he offered me some Nutter Butters in return, and asked me to buy him a Coke. I had to explain to him that my kids aren’t allowed to eat cookies except on special occasions. (This is Berkeley, after all.)

He helps me out, too. He gave me a card for a free Peet’s coffee one day because he said they were mean to him and he won’t go in there anymore. I told him I don’t drink coffee. “But you drink tea, don’t you?” he said. I couldn’t remember telling him that, but he was right, I do. Another day when I told him I was sick, he gave me two cloves of garlic and told me to swallow them whole, and I did.

When Berkeley’s Measure S, the sit and lie measure, was on the ballot November 6, I voted against it. Measure S would have made it illegal for Doc to sit on the wall next to Mechanics Bank and make art all day. After a couple of warnings, he would have been sent to jail. And he’s tired of jail, he told me. That’s why he stopped sleeping on the protected steps of a merchant across the street, where he could stay dry—because they told him to leave and he doesn’t want to risk being sent back to jail. I voted against Measure S partly for selfish reasons—I don’t want to lose Doc—and partly because I don’t think being homeless is a crime. Living on the streets is hard enough on them already without punishing them for it.

Last year, a friend and I collected donations to make gift bags for the women and children in our local women’s shelter. It’s the only overnight women’s shelter in Berkeley, and there were about 23 women and 7 kids living there at the time. I had read an article online about things that are helpful to give to homeless people and then called the shelter to confirm that those items would be useful. In each bag we put: shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, lotion, a washcloth, a pen, a journal, fuzzy socks, underwear, a bag of English toffee, homemade scented soap, and a handwritten holiday card. The kids’ bags included a toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, a candy cane, and toys. Most of the items were donated by friends. Some were purchased with money donated by friends. Some I purchased myself. What surprised me is how few friends responded to my request for donations. In order to make the bags happen, my friend had to send a request out to her own friends, and together we pulled enough donations together to fill the bags. I’m hoping Lawrence DePrimo’s heartwarming photo will inspire more people to participate this year.

It’s easy to think, “Someone else will do something about it. Some homeless agency or policeman or social worker will help them out.” It’s easy to tell ourselves, “They’ll just spend it on drugs or alcohol.” It’s easy to get annoyed when you offer them a burrito and they say no, they want pizza. It’s easy to get discouraged when you buy them pants, and they don’t wear them. But then why are we so touched by the photo of a police officer offering a homeless man a pair of boots? Because that man is saying, “Hey, I don’t care why you’re here or how you got here. I don’t care whether you’re mentally ill or an alcoholic. No one deserves to sit outside in the cold without shoes or socks. I’m doing for you what I would hope someone would do for me.” We all need help now and then, and most of us are lucky enough to have help. We have friends or family members who can lend us money when we need it, who can watch our kids when we’re sick, who can give us a place to stay if we need to get away. But some people don’t have anyone at all, for whatever reason, and an act of kindness can mean the world to them. Plus, it’s good for our hearts.

I started reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers last night because it was mentioned in a New York Times article about parenting the other day. For those of you who haven’t read it, it begins with a tale about a town in Pennsylvania named Roseto that was populated almost exclusively by immigrants from a small town in Italy by the same name. The unusual thing about Roseto in the 50s was that there were almost no incidents of heart disease or a variety of other common illnesses in the town. After much research, scientists came to the conclusion that what set Roseto apart from other towns was its sense of community. In a town of just a few hundred people, residents stopped on the street to talk to each other in their native Italian language, grandparents lived with their children and grandchildren, and families were heavily involved in civic organizations. The result? People ate fatty foods, exercised little, and lived until they died of old age. It’s time we turned our communities into Rosetos. It’s time we performed more acts of kindness. It’s time we worried a little bit less about our own comfort and happiness and success and a little more about the people who don’t have the luxury to worry about those things because they’re too busy wondering where they’re going to find their next meal.

If you would like to donate to help us fill our shelter bags this year, we’d be hugely grateful. If you don’t live in Berkeley and you’d rather do something for your own community, fantastic. I want to hear all about the results.

And now I’m curious. What is your reaction to the DePrimo photo? Have you experienced any successes or failures with a homeless person before? How did that affect your attitude toward them?

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27 comments to Lawrence DePrimo: Why Aren’t We All Buying Shoes for the Homeless?

  • I loved your project last year, and I am glad you are doing it again. Seeing as how I am now local again (albeit physically a bit wieldy), let me know how I can help.

    There are things that people do for the less fortunate, and they may not want to make it public. Like paying off layaways at Kmart or Walmart, for starters. Or making donations to organizations, anonymously. I've done both, and have never mentioned it, because it's not a group effort and not an effort I want recognized.

    But you are right–there is so much more that each of us can do. And whether it's because it's easier to turn a blind eye or whether we get too caught up in our own lives or whether it's because we feel our own problems are overwhelming, etc., etc., we just don't help as much as we can. And i firmly believe that helping others is a way to empower ourselves, too.

    • meghancward

      Christine, You're right that so many people out there are doing things for others and not telling anyone. Lawrence DePrimo never intended for his action to be made public, or for a photo of him to go viral. It makes me happy to hear that other people are out there performing random acts of kindness for people who are less fortunate. And so glad you want to participate in the shelter bags again! Thanks for your donation last year! I'll send out a mail with a list of items we need soon.

    • Kristan

      I actually had *not* heard about this story, so thank you for bringing it to my attention.

      And pretty much ditto to everything c(h)ristine said.

  • This is heart breaking. I work at a Barnes & Noble. We have three homeless guys that visit us often, if only to stay out of the outside cold. I talk to two of them, and I always feel like I'm too caught up in my own things sometimes. The shot of the policeman is truly humbling.

    • meghancward

      Thanks for sharing this. I love that he spent $100 of his own money to buy the man shoes. I really hope this inspires more people to stop and talk to homeless people and to donate to those who need food and shelter during the winter.

  • annerallen

    The story of the NYC policeman brought me to tears when I saw it on the news. I've been doing a lot of research on homelessness in my own hometown for my mystery, NO PLACE LIKE HOME which debuts next week. It's about how close we all are to homelessness and how the homeless become invisible once they've "fallen through the cracks." In the book I work at showing the humanity, strength, and dignity of our local homeless people, rather than just telling a sad story of hopelessness. I'd love to send you a "review" copy (no review required) when it comes out. Do let me know if you'd like one.

    I'd also like to donate to your gift project. Let me know where to send the money. I've just cleared out all my extra blankets, quilts,and wool and fleece jackets and donated them to the local shelter. Even in California, winter can be very tough for them.

    • meghancward

      Anne, I'd love for you to send me a review copy of No Place Like Home! It sounds wonderful! I've been offline this past week because the screen went out on my laptop, and the Internet is out on my replacement laptop, and I haven't had time to take it to Apple to get it fixed. Anyway, thank you so much for offering to donate to the Berkeley homeless shelter gift bags. I will send you an email. And great idea to declutter and donate extra blankets and jackets to your local shelter!

  • daviskho

    It's a really good piece, Meghan, thought-provoking in the best way. I often think that people want to help – they just need to be given a really easy and convenient way to do so. I used to throw an annual Christmas party with a can of food as a price of admission – easy to grab, easy to remember – and we'd fill bags and bags for the food bank. I don't think people are hard-hearted, just busy and unsure of how to get involved. Good for you for making it easier to do so.

    BTW I would like to help but went this morning to a fundraiser brunch for Vida Verde (http://www.vveducation.org/) , an organization whose work I've supported for a while, and by mistake I shook out my entire check book and then some into their coffers. If only I'd read this first!

    • meghancward

      Nancy, I love the party/canned food idea! I've also been noticing more and more ways to donate lately. I love that Safeway makes it convenient by having pre-packaged $10 food bags you can purchase and donate, and the YMCA is collecting Toys for Tots. I'm almost overwhelmed with the ways I can donate this holiday season! There's Heifer International, too, which is so wonderful.

  • Kristan

    Not exactly on-point with your post, but an interesting follow-up to the story that sparked it: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/03/nyregion/barefo

    • meghancward

      Kristan, I've been offline this past week so just now seeing your comment. What's strange is that I posted a link to that same article in response to your first comment last week, and it doesn't appear to have showed up. Maybe connected to all my computer problems. Anyway, yes, barefoot again! Makes you wonder what happened to those boots or whether we really should be buying shoes for the homeless. Sigh. I wish there were easy answers.

  • I'm in India right now, and it's interesting how vigilant one has to be in order to truly help. For example, it's not a great idea for me as a visitor to just hand cash to the guy at my guest house who takes me to visit his village school, instead I went to the market, bought the school the books they needed, and had them delivered directly to the school. When kids are begging in the street, I never give, because giving to a kid teaches their parents/controllers that it pays to keep them out of school. In some ways, it's better to get involved with an NGO here, even though that feels more distant and less heartwarming. I wonder how much of these conditions exist in the USA, too–not knowing what's actually helpful, not knowing what gives comfort and what enables–but it's easier for me to see them in the context of another culture.

    • meghancward

      Allison, Thank you for your comment (and sorry for my slow response. I've been offline this past week due to computer/Internet problems). I think things are very different in India. I was there for three months in the 90s, and I almost never gave to the kids because then they would keep coming back and pestering me constantly. I do remember giving water to girls sometimes, but it sounds like you're doing the right thing taking books directly to the school. And really, I don't know the right answer here either. People like my buddy Doc – is it really helping him to give him clothes and food? I don't know. But I like him and feel good about our relationship. The other day my daughter and I took him some sandwiches and he gave her two quarters in return and insisted she keep them. She was so excited (she's 3), but it felt odd taking spare change from a homeless man.

  • Jane Moore

    It is a wonderful story as is the photo. Thanks for sharing it. And thanks for writing about (and doing) these ways to give at Xmas. though, in support of those who don't like to give $ to homeless, my oldest daughter is a nurse practicioner who used to work for a homeless shelter in Boston. She loved her work but eventually the clinic went from nurse run to dr. run so she came back to Berkeley to work. But, she told me never to give homeless people money directly . She knew her clients. When we drove around Boston she recognized a lot of the homeless people we saw, and would comment about them (in a respectful and loving way).

    • meghancward

      Jane, I agree that you shouldn't give money to the homeless. I give Doc food and clothing but I've never given him money, and he's never asked for it. (In fact, he usually tries to give me money to buy him food or coffee.) I assume the reason is so they don't spend the money on alcohol or drugs, but I'd love to hear more about your daughter's experiences and what she has learned working with the homeless population. If you click on the link Kristan posted, you'll see that the man in the photo above is shoeless once again. Makes you wonder if he sold those boots for the cash.

  • Jane

    My husband is very friendly with various homeless people on upper Solano. The one he knew best, and to whom he gave clothes, died of some kind of cancer. I have to admit that I have never befriended a homeless person, although I used to talk a lot to the guy who died, Patrick. Sometimes I just had a thought or something I wanted to share with another African American, and of course on upper Solano most of the African Americans are homeless. Very strange to me who grew up in the southeast with very large, very diverse economically, African American neighborhoods.

  • meghancward

    Jane, I didn't know Patrick, but I remember seeing a flyer posted outside of Starbucks announcing a memorial service for him when he died. It was that flyer that inspired me to pay more attention to people like Doc because I thought how sad it was that he (Patrick) was homeless until he died. Somehow I'd been holding onto this fantasy that the homeless guys on Solano would eventually get off the streets, but that's just not the case. Living on the sidewalk (for some of them. I think some of them do have rooms) is their way of life.

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