12/07/2012 04:56 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

True Homeland Security

By now, most of us have seen the picture of New York Police Officer Larry DePrimo helping a homeless man into a pair of warm boots -- boots DePrimo bought with his own money after seeing Jeffrey Hillman barefoot on a cold, November night. It was one of those golden moments when a person transforms a bad situation by going out of his way to do the right thing.

I love this story. But even more so, I love that everybody seems to love this story. It says to me that at our collective core we know it is right to meet the basic needs of our fellow human beings. Some New Yorkers are acting on that conviction. The New York Post reported that Officer DePrimo's kindness was inspiring others in the city to give more generously to the homeless.

My question is: How do we scale up these wonderful, individual acts to create a society where it is unthinkable that frostbite is common among the homeless? Or better still: Where it is unthinkable that anyone be homeless?

Officer DePrimo was walking an anti-terrorism beat when he stopped to help Jeffrey Hillman. To me, that makes the story even better. He took time away from an amorphous, potential danger to address a real emergency: a man in peril of losing his feet to the most devastating and persistent enemy any country will ever face-- poverty. What if our concept of "Homeland Security" included everyone having a home, with heat, food, clothing and hygiene products? More Americans live in poverty today than at any time in the past half-century. Our country is, in a very real way, under attack.

It will take a concerted national effort to defeat poverty, and there is a role to play for everyone. Hygiene is my thing. I help smart, compassionate, amazing people around the country provide diapers to low-income families so that babies can stay healthy and dry. For years, I've kept packages of socks and underwear in my trunk to give out when I meet homeless people. I'd encourage anyone who wants to make a difference in the lives of less fortunate neighbors to concentrate on hygiene. These are products that government assistance does not cover. Yet they are clearly necessities.

There are endless ways that we can play a part in attacking poverty. It's a complex issue, as a story in Jeffrey Hillman's hometown newspaper, New Jersey's Star-Ledger, makes clear. Apparently, Mr. Hillman is a one-time star basketball player, a veteran and a member of a family that still tries to reach out to him. He's no longer wearing those boots because he fears they make him a target. A complex web of circumstances often puts people on the streets. Untangling that web can be difficult. But it is worth doing.

Officer Larry DePrimo did a good and honorable thing. It is a thing that needs to be repeated over and over in every community in the country. The impulse behind these individual acts of kindness must drive national policy. Making sure that the basic needs of our fellow citizens are met should be as important as making sure the roads are paved. What encourages me about the public reaction to this story is that -- even if we don't always act accordingly - deep down we clearly all know that.