Twitter Flame War Fires Up Austin FC Supporters to Help the Unhoused

For Los Verdes, y'all means all

The Austin FC supporters' section at a game in 2021 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

On January 2 of this year, Chris Saldaña sent a tweet, tagging Austin's mayor and police chief: "Happy New Year @Chief_Chacon, any update on @austintexasgov cleaning up this piece of property that belongs to the City of #Austin. It's going on two months that you said it would be handled. This video is from today. Cars, trash, drugs, prostitution. Help us @MayorAdler."

The linked video pans through an encampment used by unhoused people in a North Austin park near I-35 in the St. Johns neighborhood. A pile of trash bags and garbage gathered into a pile can be seen, and some tents, but not much else. (No people are visible.)

Saldaña, a journalist and communications professional, spent 2021 as an announcer for Austin FC, during the inaugural year of Austin's Major League Soccer team. Things turned sour for him quickly after the tweet, which was met with a flood of disagreement (and, according to Saldaña, some threatening messages too). Many of the replies were from fans, who thought that his tweet was starkly at odds with the inclusive atmosphere they've tried to create at Austin FC games, where attendees may chant, "Y'all means all."

"I was disgusted by the tweet," said Justin Davis, a formerly unhoused season ticket holder who now drives an electric cab. Davis was one of multiple regular attendees who reached out to the team asking for a formal response. Although the team never publicly responded, some fans report receiving a short reply saying the issue would be handled internally.

And within just days, Saldaña was out of a job, with the team choosing not to renew his contract for the 2022 season. But that's not how the story ends. Others in the Austin FC community tried to put a positive spin on the situation by using it as an opportunity for outreach. Almost immediately, members of the Los Verdes fan club held a meeting to discuss how to fundraise and gather supplies for the unhoused.

As for why people are living in tents in a park near Saldaña's house, after the reinstatement of the city's ban on public camping (followed by legislation imposing such a ban statewide), those without homes, and those who help them and advocate for them, agree that many people simply don't have anywhere else to go.

"People get very holier-than-thou," said Fran Tatu, one of several volunteers we spoke with. "But they aren't looking at the systemic reasons that people are on the streets." Complaints about trash are commonplace, but "if you didn't have a trash service, you'd also have trash all around. These people don't have running water; they're barely scraping by."

While social media flame wars happen every day, this one placed a spotlight on an issue that has not gone away despite Save Austin Now's victory at the ballot box in May 2021. That "landslide" rejection of the city's two-year-long effort to address homelessness through decriminalization and investments in new long-term housing was approved by just 90,498 of Austin's close to 800,000 registered voters, concentrated in the city's wealthier and whiter precincts west of I-35.

That leaves a lot of room for a lot of bitterness to remain about the outcome, and concern about what's to become of the most vulnerable people that live here. The tweet, and the reaction to it, became an opportunity to look deeper into what it means to be unhoused in Austin in 2022 and what some fans (and other people) can do and are doing to help.

Life Under the Camping Ban

"There's no resources and nowhere for people to go," wrote Michelle M. in an email, using all caps for emphasis, when asked about unhoused life after the camping ban. Both Michelle and Fran volunteer with Stop the Sweeps, a network that's dedicated to supporting the unhoused with resources that range from camping gear to legal aid.

Stop the Sweeps began in 2019, after City Council voted to remove criminal penalties for public camping, sitting or lying in the street or sidewalk, and certain forms of panhandling. But even then, city "cleanup" efforts routinely resulted in lost belongings, according to the volunteers and unhoused people. More intense efforts to sweep unhoused people out of sight, in their view, began after voters on May 1 of last year approved reinstatement of the camping ban, even as the GOP-led Save Austin Now political action committee threatened litigation against the city for not moving fast enough. The Texas Legislature sent its state­wide ban (House Bill 1925, by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake) to the governor on May 28, two days before the Texas House Democrats walked out and broke quorum.

Enforcement began after a short warning period. According to The Texas Tribune, Aus­tin police had issued over 500 warnings and 130 citations for illegal sitting, sleeping, or camping by October 2021. While the city moved over 100 people into bridge shelters and other housing programs through its targeted H.E.A.L (Homeless Encampment Assistance Link) camp cleanups, many others remain without homes other than the streets.

Some ended up in Camp Esperanza, a sanctioned encampment on state land in Southeast Austin that's operated by The Other Ones Foundation. (The city's efforts to designate its own property for sanctioned encampments quickly turned politically toxic.) But these facilities don't fit everyone and can be far away from jobs or transit. Some people can't find places that will take both them and their companion animals.

A criminal record can easily push a person onto the streets. For Justin Davis, who came back from military service with an addiction, a drug conviction made it a constant, lengthy struggle to find housing. And for those that don't start out with a criminal record, citations and arrests can quickly contribute to a cycle of continuing poverty that's hard to escape. That's why advocates for those experiencing homelessness, led by then-Council Member Greg Casar, viewed removing criminal penalties for being homeless as a needed first step in 2019.

"Everything costs more being homeless," said Jesus Guadalupe Peña Gonzalez, who goes by "Denver" on the streets. For example, "you can't go to the H-E-B to buy groceries, you have to go to fast food or a food truck and that food is more expensive." Denver explained that many people he meets on the streets are orphans like him who came out of the foster system without a good support network.

"A lot of individuals have done time [in prison] so that's years that they haven't made money, that they haven't been spending money, so they have fallen behind ... they do need help," he said. People return again and again to the illegal camps, only to be kicked out again. Thanks to Austin's rapid development, many of the hidden places where people used to camp are no longer available. "They're pretty much going in circles," Denver said.

Even when they take the first steps to get off the streets, it can still take months or years to get there. Denver arrived on the streets of Austin in 2012 and applied for a housing voucher in 2014. It took him until late last year to get approved and arrange everything so he could move into his studio apartment. When the Chronicle interviewed him in January, Denver said he was still settling in and getting used to sleeping indoors again.

"'THAT GUY' Is Everywhere"

Stop the Sweeps volunteers are familiar with the camp in St. Johns near Saldaña's house. Scott Hoft told us via email there are about 30 people who camp regularly in that area. "They are people, people who need support and to not be criminalized," he wrote.

The encampment near I-35 in the St. Johns neighborhood (Photo by John Anderson)
The St. Johns camp “is a real concern for parents and teachers. It’s right behind some homes and very close to [Webb] Middle School. [But] it’s not appropriate to sweep with near freezing temperatures on the way and no housing available.” – Council Member Chito Vela

"I never called for tearing down tents or moving homeless people," Saldaña insisted when he spoke to the Chronicle. He seemed resigned and a little bemused to find himself near the center of the story, after years spent on the other side of such stories as a journalist. He insisted that the tweet was part of an ongoing conversation he'd been attempting to have with city officials, hoping to draw their attention to the park which, according to him, had become unsafe and unusable by the people living in and around it, in tents and out of their cars.

But to many who saw his plea on Twitter, the fact that he tagged police Chief Joseph Chacon was enough to ensure that any response would involve, at the very least, lost belongings and potential jail time in the event of a sweep. "Citizens of Austin are constantly calling the cops to complain about their unhoused neighbors and our unhoused neighbors are in constant danger from their housed neighbors and the police," Hoft wrote. "Police threaten anybody who resists, doesn't comply, or sets back up after, with ticketing and arrest."

For an example of the brutal treatment some receive, Hoft cited the case of Simone Griffith, a 26-year old unhoused woman who launched a lawsuit against the city and the Austin Police Department in January. A bystander captured her October 2021 arrest for criminal trespass on video, during which two Austin police officers held Griffith down and dragged her, with one officer seen punching her eight times.

Saldaña said he understood people had a difference of opinion, and that was natural, but it didn't excuse the threats he'd received. At one point, he said, he received a threatening message with photos of his family. "I understand people are passionate, but passion turned to hatred," he recalled. (He said he only started blocking people when threats started rolling in; some fans disputed this timeline and said they'd been blocked for relatively polite messages.)

Eric Goodman, the Chronicle's sports columnist, took to the social network to express dismay that a single tweet was leading to such an intense response. "The amount of people casually calling for his job on this website after one unpopular tweet was pretty staggering," Goodman tweeted. "I didn't agree with it either, but he still has a right to an opinion, no?"

But for fans like Davis, that tweet was enough to show that Saldaña wasn't the right person to speak for the team. "Those are my neighbors," he said of the unhoused, "and I take it personally when someone says something like that, when they dehumanize them that way."

However, he said, a lot of people agree with that dehumanizing attitude. "'That guy' is everywhere in Aus­tin. People you think are nice people and then they'll say something similar."

While he thought Austin FC acted correctly when they decided not to renew Saldaña's contract, he's disappointed that they wouldn't speak publicly about the matter. "They're new in the community, they could set a tone. They have a very very big voice, and if they can react with compassion, it could change a lot of attitudes."

Austin FC officials have continued to not comment publicly on this incident and declined to speak on the record for this story, though they did share information with us about the club's own social outreach efforts. For his part, Saldaña said he was told, "Ownership is going in a different direction [with the announcer role] and they assured me it has nothing to do with social media."

The Fans Get To Work

While Davis may be right that hostile or unsympathetic attitudes toward the unhoused are more common than Austin wants to think, Austin FC has during its first year acted with compassion toward poorer members of the community. Working primarily through the 4ATX Foundation, a nonprofit they created, Austin FC built three kid-sized soccer pitches in underserved neighborhoods; offered grants to nonprofits like Con Mi MADRE, Urban Roots, and Science Mill, which help young people and their families gain life skills and pursue higher education; and organized over 13,000 volunteer hours by team personnel, players, and fans toward community efforts. In total, the club says, 4ATX donated over $738,000 to local nonprofits and estimates it put about $500,000 of in-kind labor and services back into local communities in 2020.

In addition, Austin FC goalie Brad Stuver helped bring the Laundry Project to Austin, an effort which offers free laundromat access and supplies. It's a project he supported at his previous two teams as well. Fan clubs like Los Verdes have played a massive role in creating a more inclusive atmosphere and supporting efforts like the Laundry Project. They also stepped up after the Twitter flame war to take meaningful action to help the unhoused and further the team's and supporters' collective values.

According to Los Verdes member Dustin W., the group met to plan a fundraiser soon after the tweet. "We live in a country where most people are one or two missed paychecks from losing their own home," Dustin said. He said he'd experienced extreme poverty in the past but, due to having a better support network, he'd been able to mostly couch-surf until his financial situation got more stable.

"Our supporters' group has over 2,000 members so of course we don't agree on every single thing," he said. "We do try to create an inclusive environment of trying to embrace and support our community regardless of gender, regardless of sexuality, and regardless of social class or housing status."

For the fundraiser, Los Verdes teamed up with a small, private supporters' club called the Fighting Leslies, who use a cartoon drawing of Austin's late unhoused icon Leslie Cochran as a symbol for their group. Together, they created a unique scarf in the team colors. One side reads, "Respect Our Neighbors, Help Each Other, Grow Togeth­er." The other side is illustrated with Leslie's legs in high-heels and a thong, the outfit he was so well-known for wearing around town.

"We honor the late peace activist and advocate for the homeless, Leslie Cochran, and his magnificent legs," reads the description provided by the two groups. The scarf is for sale, while supplies last, on the Los Verdes website. Proceeds benefit TOOF, which in addition to operating Camp Esperanza helps the unhoused find jobs and housing throughout Austin.

A member of the Fighting Leslies' leadership, Todd "Aggie" Gardner, told the Chronicle that after helping the Laundry Project and running a successful T-shirt sale benefiting Community First! Village, the tiny-house-based intentional community operated by Mobile Loaves and Fishes in far East Austin, they'd been looking for a way to team up with Los Verdes. The online flame war seemed a perfect opportunity.

The Fighting Leslies' T-shirt sales raised funds for Community First! Village; sales of a matching scarf are benefiting The Other Ones Foundation (Photo by Zeke Barbaro)
“Let’s take the energy we’re seeing and focus it in a constructive manner. Let’s do something good with this. People are up in arms, and there are people that need help, right now.” – Todd “Aggie” Gardner Of the Fighting Leslies

"Let's take the energy we're seeing and focus it in a constructive manner," Gardner told us. "Let's do something good with this. People are up in arms and there are people that need help, right now."

In addition to the fundraiser, Los Verdes and Fighting Leslies arranged for some local bars and restaurants, especially those frequented by the fans, to accept supplies for Stop the Sweeps' volunteers to share with people in need. Suggested donations include tents, sleeping bags, warm clothes, medical supplies, and hygiene items. The drop-off locations include Hopsquad Brewing, Turnstile Coffee Beer & Spirits, Yellow Jacket Social Club, Nixta Taqueria, and Cen­tral Machine Works. They're also accepting direct donations for TOOF and purchases of Stop the Sweeps wishlist items via the Los Verdes website.

Winter Is Coming (Again)

One afternoon late in January, Fran Tatu called, with tears and exhaustion in her voice. She was trying to get some folks without homes into motel rooms before a cold snap. Any longtime resident of Austin can tell you some of the nastiest cold days come near the end of the season. And memories are still fresh from the catastrophic Winter Storm Uri that hit Austin on Valen­tine's Day 2021, leading to at least 28 deaths, including many living on the streets.

Tatu had spent days operating on almost no sleep as she drove between her day job as a political canvasser and her volunteer work at the camps. She'd been dropping off supplies and, backed with funds from Austin Mutual Aid, had been helping get some of the most at-risk into hotel rooms.

Many motels, even ones that were open to the unhoused last year, now refuse to take anyone without an ID – even when someone else pays their bill. Outside of cold weather or medical emergencies, it's too expensive to put people in hotels. With the camping ban in full swing, and relief funds getting scarcer, volunteers like Tatu are running out of options. More winter-time deaths are all but inevitable.

By February, time was running out for the camp at I-35 and St. Johns, with few clear options for the people living there, other than to flee to the next illegal encampment. For many of Austin's unhoused, life in 2022 seems to consist largely of moving from one hiding place to the next, with few prospects for long-term stability. Stop the Sweeps reported that the city intended to clear the encampment by Feb. 18, without the follow-­on provision of bridge shelter that defined the H.E.A.L. cleanups last year. "This camp is being targeted for eviction ... with no housing provided. Where will they go?"

Council Member Chito Vela, who succeeded Greg Casar just last week, expressed frustration over the situation when we spoke on the phone. He said he and his staff had been working "heavily" to try to find a better solution. "This isn't part of the H.E.A.L. initiative, to put people into transitional housing," he said. "This is more of a classic sweep where they are just telling folks to get lost."

Vela stressed that the park was an "inappropriate" place for a camp, due to its location. "It's a real concern for parents and teachers," he said, citing a recent meeting he'd attended at Webb Middle School. "It's right behind some homes and very close to the middle school." But he also expressed compassion for the plight of the people at the camp. "It's not appropriate to sweep with near freezing temperatures on the way and no housing available."

Vela successfully negotiated a one-week delay to the clearing of the camp, which puts the deadline at this Friday, Feb. 25. It's still not clear where people will go after that. Vela expressed hope that community advocates will be able to help people out of the camp into better situations. But those advocates seem to be stretched very thin.

According to Denver, laws which ban camping or sleeping essentially punish residents for making mistakes. People come to Austin for all kinds of reasons – like looking for work or starting a business – and some of them end up unhoused when those efforts fall through. "People are going to continue to take risks," he said, "and sometimes the result of their risks is they end up homeless. That doesn't mean we need to make it illegal for them to fail."

He added, "You've got to support them as they get back on their way because that's what we really need, is a little support while we get back on our feet." He's equally insightful about potential solutions. "I'd like to design the next homeless shelter," he said.

One innovation he suggested was putting numerous smaller shelters and transitional housing throughout the city's neighborhoods, instead of centralizing everyone at just a few massive shelters and housing projects. This would allow them to stay closer to their friends, families, and other support networks. While the city's new bridge shelters are located in former motels, the need for better emergency shelters to escape both cold and heat, perhaps for days or weeks, is one of the forces driving the development of "resilience hubs" after Uri. These will likely find homes in existing neighborhood-serving facilities like schools, libraries, and recreation centers.

As poverty increases nationwide, Austin has good company in its struggles with a growing population of the poor. Many of them are slipping through the cracks when it comes to official options for support. Listen­ing more to the people actually affected by this crisis, and not just to those who find it upsetting, might lead the community to new solutions that can leverage existing organizing efforts – be it mutual aid or the dedicated Verde-blooded fans of Austin FC – that bring us all closer together as a ­community.

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