For homeless residents in San Jose, this 19-year-old is a true superhero

June 22, 2020
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n the streets of San Jose, he is known by only one name: Batman.

As he makes his way through the many homeless encampments that dot the city, his purple cape billowing out behind him and the iconic bat logo displayed across his chest, people call out to him.

“Hey, Batman!” “What’s up, Batman?” “It’s Batman, bro!”

He responds to each one, handing out bottles of water, canned tuna and ravioli, shirts and socks. He asks how people are doing, poking his head into tents to make sure the occupants are all right.

He’s not really a superhero. He’s a 19-year-old from San Jose, fresh out of high school, who drives a 2002 Toyota Avalon instead of a Batmobile and lives with his parents. But for the past year, he’s been donning the elaborate, hand-made costume and visiting his city’s homeless communities. Now that school’s out, he’s going almost every day.

His goal is to get strangers to notice him and ask what he’s doing so he can spread awareness about the crisis that’s left more than 6,000 people in the city with nowhere to call home — a 42% increase in two years.

“I want to draw attention to the issues that people don’t like to look at,” he said. “And Batman is very attention-grabbing. And purple Batman is even more attention-grabbing. So I figured I’d use that to help show people what’s going on in San Jose.”

Like the real Dark Knight, he insists on keeping his identity a secret.

On a recent weekday, Batman started his rounds at the San Pedro Square parking garage, strapping on his costume — and his alter-ego — before stepping out of the gloom and into the sunlight. Then, pulling a wagon full of supplies bought with his own money or donated by family and friends — he spends at least $20 a day on supplies — he set off. He was headed for St. James Park, where people with nowhere else to go often gather.

His costume, made from motocross armor, is convincing. He has a passion for costume-making and is headed to Rochester Institute of Technology in the fall to study industrial design. A respirator mask, worn as a coronavirus precaution, muffles his voice and makes him sound even more like a superhero. Around his waist is a utility belt stocked with tools and a first-aid kit, and he carries duct tape and zip ties to help people fix their tents and makeshift shelters.

Strangers stare as he walks by. Some wave from their cars. Others ask for photos.

“I’ve been seeing him everywhere,” said 65-year-old Robert Earl as he accepted a bottle of water from the masked hero. “I guess where he’s needed.”

Crossing the park, Batman ran into 53-year-old Elizabeth Henriques, who immediately asked for a hug.

“It’s good to see you,” she said, grinning with emotion, her eyes threatening tears. “It makes me smile.”

It had been a while since they’d seen each other. Batman asked how she’s been, and Henriques, who used to sleep in St. James Park, had good news: The county placed her and her partner in one of the motel rooms reserved to house homeless residents during the coronavirus pandemic. She’s thrilled. She can shower every day now, and she’s wearing earrings again.

They spent some time joking and catching up, and before he left, Henriques told Batman it’s her birthday in two weeks: July 1. He wrote the date down in a little black notebook.

He uses the notebook to keep careful record of the promises he makes to people on the streets, whether it’s a blanket, new shoes or a birthday visit. He learned early on never to make a promise he can’t keep.

Batman was first introduced to the homeless community through his high school’s mandatory service hours, which he spent at Sacred Heart and various soup kitchens in the area. The more he talked to people getting food and other help, the more it struck him that many people on the street could use a little friendly conversation. So that’s what he strives to provide — and the Batman getup helps.

“It’s like they know me already,” he said. “So they’re more comfortable.”

He’s had some intense moments, too. There was the time he found a woman having a diabetic seizure because her blood sugar was too low. He sprinted to Ike’s Love & Sandwiches and told someone behind the counter, “I need candy, now!” Whether it was his tone of voice or the authority that comes with the outfit, he got the candy and rushed back in time to help stop the seizure.

Then there was the time someone pulled a knife on him. Batman shrugs off that confrontation, explaining the man just wanted to be left alone — he wasn’t actually going to stab him.

Sometimes, Batman meets kindred spirits, like Nikhil Bhatnagar, an immigration attorney from San Jose who also brings food to homeless camps in the area. The two crossed paths at an encampment recently, and Bhatnagar was impressed by Batman’s efforts — and his costume.

But the fact Batman has to exist at all “demonstrates a flaw in the system,” Bhatnagar said. “What he’s trying to do — and what I’m doing to a much lesser extent — is a Band-Aid. And there are longer-term solutions that need to be put in place.”

In addition to St. James Park, Batman regularly visits an encampment tucked under the overpass off West Santa Clara Street, near the SAP Center.

He climbed through a hole in a chain-link fence to reach a shabby tent covered in a blue tarp, surrounded by shopping carts. This one is always tough for him: A mom and her 3-year-old son live here. They weren’t home this time, so he left a box full of food and clothing outside the tent.

“I can’t stop thinking about him,” he said.  “And it’s a tough thing to think about.”

Later, Batman learned the family had been moved temporarily into a motel room — a small victory.

After three and a half hours, he was out of supplies — he’d handed out about 100 bottles of water and dozens of cans of food. He was forced to turn back, even though, to his disappointment, he hadn’t made it to the end of the row of tents. The camps keep getting bigger, which means he has to bring more supplies.

“It’s definitely gotten worse from when I started,” he said.

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