San Jose may be a massive city, a sprawling metropolis glittering with wealth and opulence yet plagued by poverty, blight and crime. But, it doesn’t share the dark Gotham of DC fame.
On occasion though, a peculiar character could trick San Joseans into feeling like they’d fallen into a Chris Nolan film.
With bespoke armor and the classic cowl and cape, a young man stalking the streets of San Jose at night dressed as Batman has–since the early days of the pandemic–used theatrics and the symbol of one of America’s most beloved superheroes to bring attention to the plight of the city’s unhoused.
“It’s ridiculous, I mean look at what I’m wearing,” Batman said while fully suited up for a Zoom interview.
He’s been dressing as a superhero and connecting with unhoused people where they live, in RVs and parked cars, in tents and on trails and sidewalks, for more than four years now.
“Batman is a tool to kind of force people to acknowledge that if there’s some person running around in a Halloween costume trying to help people, then there’s something wrong with what’s going on,” Batman said. “Everybody knows there’s something wrong with how society is functioning right now. Everybody’s fully aware, but we actively choose to ignore the problems that are most important right now, simply because it makes us uncomfortable.”
He said there’s been a certain apathy to the unhoused and the problem of chronic homelessness in the Bay Area that, while disheartening, is not insurmountable.
Barely over the age of 20, Batman headed out of the state to complete a major in industrial design and a minor in public policy, both of which he plans to use to tackle homelessness on a larger scale.
Before forsaking San Jose to pursue college, the young man, known to Metro Silicon Valley only as Batman, connected with another superhero with even more experience battling the forces of evil and fighting crime on the mean streets of Silicon Valley cities.
Though it may sound like San Jose’s Batman handed the utility belt off to a grizzled crime fighter with almost two decades of experience laughing in the face of danger, his successor as guardian of San Jose’s streets is, like Batman, more about fighting problems than people.
Crimson Fist, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, says they were a bad kid.
With a 17-year-long career of altruism under their belt, it’s a bit hard to believe. However, Crimson Fist says they’ve changed a lot since their days of hooliganry and petty crime.
They ran with a bad crowd as a teen, and began using drugs and getting up to no good.
After realizing the negative path their life had taken and the pain their criminal actions had caused others, Crimson Fist decided to turn things around, but found themselves not facing quite the right direction.
Their crime-fighting career began quite literally with picking fights with criminals.
“I had been going out and just doing patrols, wandering around looking for drug dealers with this fantasy that I was going to beat people up, be this vigilante figure. At one point in time I realized that it was stupid,” they said.
In an effort to make up for the trouble and pain they had caused, they figured they had to prevent or punish other crimes.
“I was angry at myself for the things that I had done,” they said. “And thankfully, I’ve gotten rid of a lot of that anger and sort of realized that there are reasons why I was doing drugs and running with a bad crowd, and I have compassion for myself. I need to have compassion for other people who are just trying to survive in this messed up world we have right now.”
Later, they concluded the way to fight crime wasn’t with their fists. If you spot Crimson Fist, you’re more likely to see them extending an open hand.
“I realized if I’m going to do this, I need to do it in a way that’s positive for people and that’s actually helping people and showing there’s a good side to all of this, that there’s positive change that can happen. And what better way in our culture than dressing up like a superhero?”
Hot and Cold
On the last few hot days of summer, Crimson Fist hands out water by the case. According to the Bay Area Superheroes Instagram, the heroes–with the help of monetary donations–have distributed 1,211 gallons of water to various homeless encampments over the past summer.
During colder months, they distribute blankets, socks and sleeping bags as well as food and personal care items.
As the seasons change, so do the needs of those living on San Jose’s streets. During the summer, people need water to stave off heat stroke and stay hydrated. In winter, even in sunny San Jose, temperatures can fall below freezing and leave unhoused people vulnerable to hypothermia.
Fighting crime, for Crimson Fist, is more about fighting poverty, and extending compassion to those who have been demonized as violent or degenerate by those who feel homelessness is a choice.
On one Saturday-morning water distribution run, Crimson Fist hits several homeless encampments in downtown San Jose and the surrounding areas.
In St. James Park, one of the recipients of Crimson Fist’s goodwill gesture, Brian McCrary, said he sees volunteers in the park distributing food, water or personal care items to the unhoused residents of the park nearly every day.
McCrary has been unhoused for nearly a decade, and when asked what it would take to get on his feet, he had a one-word answer handy: “Income.”
A network IT engineer, McCrary lost his housing when he lost his job. Though he is hopeful of new employment, he said attempting to find and keep a job while homeless is “inconvenient and challenging.”
McCrary said he stays in the park to be able to take advantage of the light rail and thinks the times when people would accost homeless folks is ending.
“I think that trend has faded,” he said. Perhaps heroes like Batman and Crimson Fist are aiding in this trend.
Further along in their water distribution runs, Crimson Fist used a flatbed cart to pass out several cases of water to people living in tents and makeshift dwellings beneath an overpass near the Guadalupe Creek system.
Noticing warning signs of an impending sweep of the encampment, they shook their heads and paused to take a photo of the flier.
Another group, Good Samaritans of San Jose, used a wagon to pass out meals. Initially, the group went to a local food bank to secure the meals they donate every Saturday morning, but were turned away.
“We’ve seen the food banks. The availability of food there has changed,” group member Greg Rasmussen said. “Sometimes they don’t have food; today the one that we regularly go to said ‘no food today’; they didn’t have enough.”
Yvette Markett, another of the group’s members, said the demand was just too high. When asked if they had a plan for the future of their work with the unhoused, if they saw an end to the underlying issues in sight, Markett sighed and shook her head.
Her husband, Raymond Markette, said Yvette had been crying that morning after seeing the fliers warning of the encampment sweep.
“They’re taking people’s possessions and just moving them away, and then they end up a few blocks away with less than they had a week ago,” Raymond Markett said.
Crimson Fist echoed the Marketts’ sentiments, and said the sweeps don’t accomplish anything other than shuffling people from one encampment to the next, removing their possessions, and making it harder for social workers and volunteers to find individuals they’re trying to help.
“It’s a cycle that doesn’t really seem to have an end given the way that we currently are doing things,” they said.
Beneath the overpass, Ashley Adam, a former county employee, tried to wrangle her dog, Blue. An over-enthusiastic pitbull puppy with a loud bark that might deter people from approaching Adam’s tent, Blue approaches every stranger he can, hoping for snacks or affection.
Adam, holding two empty three-gallon water jugs, said the water fountains near the encampment had been shut off for weeks, and the single ported john available to nearly two dozen unhoused folks had also not been cleaned in nearly a month. The ported john had been supplied by the city, but not maintained regularly.
“The water’s turned off” she said. “The city workers said it wasn’t them, but I think it was. It’s been off since before the Wine Festival, and that bathroom hasn’t been cleaned.”
Garbage is everywhere, but Adam said the city doesn’t come to collect what residents of the encampment are able to collect. People then dump out the city-provided bags in nearby areas, and continue to use the bags for other purposes.
Adam said the sweeps feel like they give the illusion of a problem being solved, that they’re for the benefit of the housed population who don’t want to see the problem.
She pointed to another overpass across the street. That’s where she’ll go when her current encampment is swept.
“It’s just a revolving circle,” Adam said.
San Jose’s Batman echoed her sentiments, saying the sweeps are a kind of theater for those who are uncomfortable with seeing homeless people.
“We are prioritizing our own comfort over the safety and livelihoods of other people. That is the core of what sweeps are, in my opinion,” Batman said.
Crimson Fist said one of the most important aspects of their work is educating others on the difficulties of living on the streets, and the challenges and roadblocks people face in finding and keeping housing.
“Imagine having the worst day of your life where nothing goes right,” they said, “and then imagine that’s every day for a month. There’s so many issues that they deal with out here that we as housed people can’t really even fathom. Just imagine having to wear the same pair of socks every day.”
No End In Sight
Mayor Matt Mahan says he has a plan for ending street homelessness in San Jose. However, thus far–stymied by red tape and NIMBYism–efforts by Mahan and by activists to push forward the development of tiny homes or low-income housing, have been stalled until Mahan’s 9th month as San Jose’s mayor.
Just recently, the city voted to approve $6.2 million in funding for Home First, a provider of housing services, outreach and shelter, and VTA signed off on the building of 200 “tiny homes” at one of its work yards off of Highway 237.
With a limited two-year term, the clock is ticking on Mahan’s efforts to curtail street homelessness.
When asked for a statement, San Jose City officials resent a comment from Mahan.
“We know the formula for ending street homelessness: build enough safe, dignified shelter for everyone living outside, and then require that everyone come indoors. In just the last month, San Jose has secured two new tiny home sites that will add 350 individual rooms with a door that locks, enabling us to help as many individuals transition out of our streets and creeks,” Mahan said.
Though Mahan’s plans to end street homelessness are ambitious and progressive compared to previous mayors and mayoral candidates, tiny homes are not permanent housing, and their existence provides a stop-gap to unsheltered street homelessness, but doesn’t address the other myriad causes of homelessness.
Among the causes of homelessness listed by unhoused persons and organizations combating the issue, are the skyrocketing costs of living in the Bay Area; growing income inequality and wealth disparity; systemic racism, mental illness, domestic abuse, family homelessness and drug addiction; children aging out of the foster system; and the reverberating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The tiny houses are also not equipped with kitchens or plumbing, and rely instead on sanitation areas and portable bathrooms.
In an emailed statement, Home First outlined their philosophy as being in line with the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and gave a short list of broad tactics: A coordinated approach, housing as solution, including programs like rapid re-housing, assistance for the most vulnerable, designing a crisis response, including outreach and shelter services, and increasing employment and income.
Though Santa Clara County’s last Point-In-Time report counted 10,028 unhoused individuals, Home First believes chronic homelessness is not an unsolvable problem.
Several cities, like Bakersfield and Columbus, Ohio claim to have solved chronic homelessness using what Home First calls “evidence-based solutions.”
“Yes, the homelessness crisis can be solved. Currently, 83 communities across the United States have accomplished exactly that goal by utilizing evidence-based solutions. With continued commitment from San Jose residents and elected officials, we will achieve this too,” according to Home First.
During the pandemic, when hate crimes against Asian-Americans hit an all-time high and several elderly Chinese people were attacked in Oakland and San Francisco, Crimson Fist started “patrolling” the streets of Oakland’s Chinatown.
Their strategy for counteracting a hate-driven attack is taught in active bystander classes: essentially, Crimson Fist and their allies put themselves between the attacker, who usually starts with verbal harassment, and the victim. This redirects the attention of the potential attacker and allows another volunteer to steer the would-be victim to safety.
“In the two years or so that I’ve been up there working, it’s definitely been at least a dozen or so times that we’ve had to intervene [between] violent situations like active harassers and things like that,” Crimson Fist said.
Their tactics are all about deescalation and being visible. The bright red mask, baseball caps with the Crimson Fist logo, accompanied by a crimson bullet-proof vest or high-visibility jacket make the hero recognizable as a figure who is there to help.
“Usually, the goal is to try and just get their focus on us,” Crimson Fist said.
Later, their patrols saw the increase of petty crime and street robbery, incidences of purse snatching and bipping, the smash-and-grab car burglaries that have plagued the upper peninsula.
When asked what their plan was for preventing crime while on patrol, Crimson Fist admits “there isn’t one.”
Getting involved in the middle of a bipping or robbery is dangerous, not only to Crimson Fist but also to bystanders. The goal, Crimson Fist says, is more to dissuade people from committing crime by being an active witness, and to take care of victims in the aftermath of a robbery in which they may be injured or knocked down.
In addition to providing first aid and emotional support to victims, Crimson Fist is involved with Tuff Love Self Defense, which trains people in self-defense and focuses on teaching members of the LGBTQIA+ community to defend themselves from attack.
Crimson Fist said being nonbinary themselves and noting the number of queer and trans folks on the street who are vulnerable to attack, this part of community outreach is especially important to them.
“I do a lot of work with the local trans community in Oakland. We put on a lot of self defense and safety seminars,” they said. “Having the trans experience kind of gives me a different perspective on justice issues and things like that in the world, and it’s kind of a big part of why I’m able to connect with different communities.”
Though he now resides in Rochester, NY, a bit closer to the city that truly inspired Gotham, San Jose’s own Batman says the “Capital of Silicon Valley” hasn’t seen the last of him. However, until San Jose’s own Dark Knight can come back to distribute water and socks, and use active bystander techniques to diffuse altercations, the city needs more heroes.
So B.A.S.H., Bay Area Superheroes, is recruiting.
“You can only do so much as one person, and while one person can do a lot to make a difference, a collection of people can do a lot more. We wanted to build that collection of people whose sole goal is to help people who are facing homelessness,” Batman said.
In terms of recruitment criteria, Batman and Crimson Fist agree that they aren’t looking for a particular skill set. The basic conditions for recruitment into the Bay Area’s answer to the Justice League are being over the age of 18, and being willing to do something kind for someone who can offer nothing in return.
“We want people who are empathetic and are driven to do the right thing,” Batman said. “Not just because it’s convenient for them. In fact, the opposite: you have to be driven to do the right thing when it is the most inconvenient, when it does cause you the most trouble, because it happens all the time.”
Batman also stressed that while he and Crimson Fist want to encourage people to take care of those they view as members of their own community due to proximity, he also wants people to expand their definition of community to include people who are vastly different from themselves.
“I want to see people who care not just about their community, but communities that they are not a part of,” Batman said. “I want to see people who are accepting of different races, religions and orientations–you’re gonna meet a lot of people doing this work and you need to be able to empathize and understand where people are coming from, and that only comes through acceptance.”