By Mike Clary
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Moved by the plight of a barefoot homeless man who reported his shoes had been stolen as he slept, Officer Rolando Rivera first gave his word that he would help.
Then, after a visit to a department store, he gave Brian Espeut, 35, a brand new pair of $44 boots and a $15 package of tube socks.
"Brian, it appeared, was broken," Rivera, 43, wrote in his report of the May 4 incident. "I felt it would be negligent of me to leave Brian open to harm and with a lasting lack of trust for the Fort Lauderdale Police Department."
In a city recently lambasted as being among the nation's most hostile to the homeless, Rivera's good deed was celebrated at a Wednesday news conference.
In recent weeks city officials have approved measures designed to crack down on people living on the streets by beefing up prohibitions on storing possessions outdoors and defecating in public. In the works are proposals to outlaw panhandling and soliciting at intersections, to keep people from sleeping on public property and to place new restrictions on groups feeding the homeless.
Michael Stoops, founder of the Washington D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless, has described the ordinances aimed at the homeless as among the most severe he has seen in the organization's 30-year history.
"Activists come in here and say, 'Police are out to get the homeless, criminalize the homeless,"' said Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler. "That annoys me. Things like this [Rivera's act] is what happens day in, day out."
Rivera, a police officer for nine years, said he was abashed by all the attention his act of kindness generated. "I didn't do it for the publicity," he said. "This was just an ordinary guy who needed help."
Capt. Frank Sousa said Rivera's actions were singled out for recognition after the officer's detailed incident report made its way to city commissioners. Earlier in the day, police officials asked Officer Sandi Downs-Keesling, who works with the homeless daily, to hunt for Espeut and invite him to the news conference.
She could not find him, she said.
Downs-Keesling has had four interactions with Espeut, however. The most recent was in January when he requested a shelter bed during a cold snap. He listed his hometown as Deerfield Beach, she said.
Espeut was arrested for tresspassing on Broward Boulevard on April 22, according to police records.
Rivera said he was sitting in his patrol car, in uniform, working an off-duty job at Riverwalk when Espeut approached him about 6 a.m.. "He was pretty much in tears," Rivera said. "He was distraught, depressed."
Rivera told Espeut he could not leave his post until 7 a.m., but promised to help.
When Espeut disappeared, Rivera said, he went home to shower and rest briefly. But he returned to the area later that morning and found Espeut in Esplanade Park. "As relieved as I was to see him, he was surprised to see me," the officer wrote.
He asked Espeut his shoe size, Rivera said, and told him to stay put. The officer then drove to Searstown, at 901 N. Federal Highway, and bought the size 11 work boots and socks.
Back in the park, Espeut had waited. "There, in a state of pleasant surprise and sincere appreciation, he put on the socks and boots," Rivera wrote. "They were a good fit."
Four days after that encounter, Rivera said Espeut called. "I wanted to thank you," Espeut said in a message that remains on Rivera's cell phone. "I've had so many compliments from friends on my boots. The boots are great. Thank you."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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