Real life superheroes
Originally posted: http://www.sundaypaper.com/More/Archives/tabid/98/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/5904/Real-life-superheroes.aspx
Costumed crusaders shine a light on Atlanta’s homeless situation
On a Friday afternoon in a Downtown Atlanta parking garage, a couple of superheroes step out of an SUV and prepare to embark on their latest mission. They look as if they’ve stepped out of a comic book, ready to storm a supervillain’s hideout. But today’s objective doesn’t involve death rays or alien invasions. Instead, they’re about to walk through Woodruff Park and check on the many homeless Atlantans who congregate there.
Just another day on the job for the Crimson Fist and his sidekick, Metadata.
When The Sunday Paper tags along, summer temperatures are still causing dehydration on the Downtown streets, so the dynamic due brings four cases of bottled water.
“And then I believe 80 packs of crackers, and something like 48 packs of fruit snacks to hand out,” the Fist says, adding that as they distribute the water and food, they’ll “just walk around, talk to people, make sure everyone’s doing OK.”
They hoist shopping bags filled with bottles and snack packages over their shoulders and set off for the park. When the bags are empty, they’ll return to the parking garage to restock and make another circuit.
The Crimson Fist’s maroon-and-white uniform draws a few stares as they begin the two-block walk, as much for the striking logo—a red fist inside a black star—as for the incongruous pairing of red gloves and sneakers. Metadata collects a few look-overs of her own, clad in a form-fitting Lycra bodysuit and huge black lace-up boots.
The Crimson Fist—named for a comic book he created as a child—doesn’t mind. A little gawking comes with the territory.
Since he first began, “people have kind of warmed up to the idea,” he says. “Especially in areas like this, areas that I go to quite a bit, they get used to seeing me. I mean, it’s Atlanta, so you get used to the weird stuff after awhile.”
The pair are part of a loose-knit community of real-life superheroes that stretches across the country and as far as Mexico, Brazil and the United Kingdom, keeping in contact via sites like reallifesuperheroes.org and heroesnetwork.net.
These heroes refer to themselves as crime-fighters, activists or, in the Crimson Fist’s case. humanitarians. Some, like Atlanta fixture Danger Woman, advocate for a particular cause (she champions the rights of the disabled). Others simply act as a kind of colorful neighborhood watch, armed with first aid kits and video cameras—and maybe some pepper spray for protection. Still others work to, say, drive drug dealers out of local parks. Almost all engage in some form of public service—whether it’s visiting children’s hospitals, collecting items for toy drives or reaching out to the homeless.
The Crimson Fist has tried the crime-fighter-on-patrol route, but “I don’t focus on it as much anymore, because I’m a lot more focused on trying to be more on the humanitarian side of things,” he says. “I try to make sure I stay on my side of the fence as much as possible. I find that I just get more out of helping people than hurting people.”
He knows a thing or two about the latter. “I did a lot of things in my life I wasn’t necessarily proud of, did a lot of bad things and hurt a lot of people. So I kind of decided to try to give back, to try and help stop the problem that affected me when I was younger.”
Once that decision was made, his evolution a couple of years ago into the Crimson Fist “just kind of came naturally. As a kid I wanted to be a superhero, you know? And I just one day decided, I might as well bite the bullet and just go for it. And it worked out a lot better than I expected.”
His partner, a recent college graduate and freelance artist, is new to Atlanta; this is her first time going on a handout with the Crimson Fist. She started out in another city, volunteering for other real-life superheroes as an operator, or “Oracle,” named for the support role assumed by comic-book character Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) after she was shot by the Joker. Just as Oracle helps Batman behind the scenes, Metadata, in real life, helped heroes with directions or other remote assistance as they conducted handouts or patrols.
“I had heard about real life superheroes in a psychology class,” she says. “I did a little research on it and really liked what I was hearing from people, and I really wanted to help.”
“IT’S OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS”
It’s taken a bit of negotiation to allow a reporter and photographer to come along. The Crimson Fist knows his outfit attracts attention—that’s why he wears it, after all—but he’s been disappointed by media reports on his work in the past. His hope is that the sight of a man in a colorful costume will inspire onlookers to explore what they can do for others.
“I fully understand that there’s a bit of silliness to the superhero thing,” he says. “But there’s much more important things to focus on than how silly I look in the costume.”
Atlanta’s homeless population is what he’s chosen to focus on. It’s certainly a community in need of help. According to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs 2009 Report on Homelessness, on one night in January of that year, about 21,000 people were homeless in Georgia—and more than half didn’t even have a place to stay in a shelter, or were in peril of not having shelter space. The Metro Atlanta Tri-Jurisdictional Collaborative on Homelessness, which surveyed the city of Atlanta, DeKalb County and Fulton County, found 7,019 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people, accounting for at least a third of the state’s homeless population. of those, 87 percent—6,131 people—were located in Atlanta. About 2,000 were on the streets.
The Collaborative’s survey shows a 6.5 percent increase in homelessness over the last six years, even as DeKalb and Fulton Counties’ populations grew by about 17 percent over the same period, with more respondents without a full-time job in 2009 than in previous years.
“A lack of affordable housing in our area contributes to the issue,” says Vince Smith, executive director of the Gateway Center, a homeless services center that provides housing and programs to help get people out of homelessness. “With job losses and foreclosures, many people we’re seeing now are homeless that have never experienced homelessness before. With this Great Recession we’ve been in, there’s also more stresses on familes and individuals, and that’s certainly true of my colleagues at other agencies that deal with homelessness, as well; the stress level is extremely high.”
On the bright side, Smith says, hard times have encouraged others in the community to get involved.
“Anecdotally, I have seen an increase in the community’s response to the needs of others,” he says. “I can tell you that my phone rings more frequently now than it did three years ago with people wanting to do something to help others.” And local agencies, he says, “are working together more collaboratively with the community at large today than in recent history.
“Homelessness isn’t some ethereal concept,” he continues. “It’s our brothers and sisters, our nieces and nephews, our children and parents. It is us. The community response has been overwhelmingly encouraging.”
“JUST HELP PEOPLE OUT”
Back in Woodruff Park, the homeless response to the curious-looking do-gooders in their midst is a mixture of gratitude and wariness. Cries of “Hey, superhero!” precede requests for water. Several onlookers take pictures with their phones. One shabby-looking individual asks for an autograph. “I’m not tripping, right?” he asks.
Metadata approaches clusters of wary men with a water bottle and an engaging smile. More than a few times, a small crowd gathers around her. But she’s not fazed.
“They just want a little help,” she says. “I don’t see anyone attacking me for bottled water or a fruit snack. When you get down to it, they’re just people.”
The Crimson Fist acknowledges that approaching destitute strangers can be a foolhardy endeavor, especially dressing the way he does. “I mean, there’s always a risk,” he says. “That’s why I carry some protection, just in case something should happen. But I care enough about the people out here to take that risk.”
Not everyone in the park this afternoon is homeless or even destitute, but the heroes don’t discriminate. “You never can tell who needs help,” Crimson Fist says. Still, he makes a point of asking each person if they’re OK or if they need anything. “It’s a sensitive situation for some people. Sometimes they can get offended if they don’t need help. But generally speaking, most people are just happy to have something.”
“Can I join your organization?” someone calls as they pass.
“Just help people out,” the Crimson Fist replies. “That’s all you gotta do.”
“I don’t want to hold you up,” one grateful man says. “I know there’s a lot more people that have to be saved.”
By 2:30 p.m.—two hours after they’ve started—140 bottles of water have been handed out, and the snacks are all but gone.
“It went really well,” Metadata says of her first Atlanta outing. “I’m glad we got as much as we did. I wish we had enough to give to everyone.”
The Crimson Fist says he attempts to conduct handouts about once a month, setting aside money when he can to devote to supplies—something that became harder due to a recent stretch of unemployment.
“I think we spent about $40 today,” he says. “If I’m out here by myself, I’ll usually spend $25 or $30.” During the summer, that money largely goes to bottled water. But in the colder months, he expands his focus to clothing, blankets and other ways to keep warm, rummaging through thrift stores and even going through his own clothes to see what he can afford to give away. “I just save as much as I can, try to find the best deals I can,” he says.
No matter how much he saves, “I always think I’ve brought enough stuff, and there’s never enough. It’s overwhelming sometimes to see just how big a problem there is, but it’s always nice to help at least a small portion of that.”
Both agree that while they enjoy the one-on-one interaction, their ambitions go beyond handouts.
“I like being able to directly hand something to somebody when they need it,” the Crimson Fist says. “But you always want to do more.”
Metadata adds that they’re aspiring to more than distributing food and water.
“We’re also trying to get a community outreach going, get other people involved, get businesses involved,” she says. “We want to make sure that years from now, when maybe we’re starting to get to a point where we can’t do it anymore, like on a physical level even, that the community can take care of itself.
“It’s just a matter of connecting with people and saying, ‘This is what we’re about,’” she continues. “‘It’s not about going out and dressing up, it’s really about helping people, and here’s how you can do it and here’s how you can reach us.’”
The Fist sums up: “It’s not so much that we want to draw attention to us doing [this], as we want to draw attention to the problem and to show people that anybody can do this. It doesn’t take an actual superman to help solve the problem.” SP
Parties interested in helping the Crimson Fist with his mission can contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I mean, it’s Atlanta, so you get used to the weird stuff after awhile.”—The Crimson Fist
“The community response has been overwhelmingly encouraging.”—Vince Smith, executive director of the Gateway Center
HOW TO HELP
Call 2-1-1 anywhere in Georgia to find or give help for homelessness and other problems, or visit www.211.org.
275 Pryor St. SW
Hands on Atlanta
600 Means St., Suite 100
Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless
1035 Donnelly Ave. SW
Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless
477 Peachtree St.