Dec. 4, 2012 at 11:05 AM ET
He may be shoeless, but he is not homeless.
Jeffrey Hillman, the barefoot recipient of boots from an NYPD officer last month, has an apartment in the Bronx, officials told the News 4 I-Team.
“He does have stable housing,” said Seth Diamond, New York City's homeless services commissioner. “We’ve worked with Mr. Hillman for years.”
Hillman used to be homeless, but entered shelter in 2009 before moving into an apartment secured by Veterans Affairs in 2011, city officials said. He pays his rent using a lifetime voucher for homeless veterans and his Social Security income.
Despite his permanent home, Hillman panhandles in Times Square, usually without shoes. When an NBC producer spotted him Saturday night and snapped a picture, his new boots from Officer Larry DePrimo werenowhere to be seen. He has offered varying accounts of why he was not wearing them and did not mention that he had an apartment.
Hillman’s shoelessness and apparent homelessness touched DePrimo and many other sympathetic New Yorkers after a photo of the exchange, snapped by a tourist in Times Square, went viral last week.
“I understand why it could be frustrating for New Yorkers,” Diamond said. “They see a person in this situation and they think no one has been helping. Outreach teamscontinue to try to work with him, but he has a history of turning down services.”
But the challenges are greater than just putting a roof over someone’s head. The city's homeless population on the street suffers from a range of mental health and substance abuse issues.
A small percentage of people who move from the streets into a home end up returning to the streets.
Hillman still lives in his apartment, according to city officials. They tell the I-Team they checked on him a few weeks ago, when a concerned New Yorker called 311 about a shoeless man in the rain.
It's not clear why someone with new boots would continue to go shoeless on the street when he has a home. Homeless experts speculate that in addition to the possibility of mental health issues or drug addiction, shoelessness might make for better panhandling.
Homeless experts hope the truth about Hillman won’t detract from DePrimo’s act of kindness, nor the need for people to seek help this winter when they see someone in need.
"Shelter and a pair of shoes are a start, but easy access to quality services is critical to helping people reclaim their lives and not just simply have a bed," said Muzzy Rosenblatt, executive director of Bowery Residents Committee, a nonprofit that works in homeless outreach.
The Department of Veterans Affairs provides ongoing services to Hillman, but would not share details about his situation because of confidentiality rules.