Celebrating 40 Years of Struggle

Michael Stoops (left) and Mitch Snyder (right) before a 48 day protest to improve the Federal City Shelter. Photo courtesy of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

The Community for Creative Non-Violence marks its own history and remembers Mitch Snyder 

The struggle to end homelessness is still far from over. But after more than four decades of fasting, praying and working for the cause, the Community for Creative Non-Violence is pausing to celebrate and remember.  

On Saturday, September 11, from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., CCNV will hold a 40th anniversary celebration at its 1,100 bed-shelter which is located at Second and D Streets NW, a corner now known as D Street and Mitch Snyder Place. In the spirit of CCNV, the party will include free food and health care, as well as music. And of course, there will be reminiscences about Mitch Snyder. Many people have made CCNV what it is. But it is hard to imagine CCNV without flamboyant, driven and ultimately tragic Mitch Snyder. Founded by Father Ed Guinan and a group of Georgetown University students in early 1970s, CCNV started out seeking to end the Vietnam War with peaceful protest and public education. But the organization slowly evolved with the times. It branched into working for social justice, first opening a soup kitchen; then working to find shelter for the growing ranks of homeless people in Washington. CCNV is where Snyder honed his skills and found his voice and changed the way the entire nation thought about homelessness. Gone for 20 years this summer, his story bears repeating.  

He was born in 1943 to atheist parents of Jewish background. His father, an electrical firm executive, left the family for another woman when Snyder was only nine. He and his mother, Beatrice, fell from a comfortable middle-class lifestyle into semipoverty, a situation which Snyder said later on brought the two closer 

However he struggled without a father figure and eventually joined a street gang, quit school and got arrested over a dozen times by his 16th birthday. He was sent to a reform school, from which he dropped out in less than a year. He returned to his native Brooklyn in pursuit of work and night school.  

During this period, Snyder met future wife Ellen Kleiman, with whom he eventually had two sons. He found work selling vacuum cleaners door to door, making a living doing what he enjoyed most: chatting with strangers.  

Yet underneath it all, Snyder felt something was amiss. He could not settle for a capitalist lifestyle.  

“I think anyone who works for money is stark raving mad, because prostitution is bad, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re standing on 14th Street or in a boardroom for AT&T,” he once said.  

In 1969, he left his family and took to the road. A year later, he was convicted of car theft in Las Vegas (though he always maintained he was innocent). He spent most of his jail term in Danbury, Connecticut, where he met and studied the Bible with radical Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan. The experience moved him to focus his political energy on opposition to the war in Vietnam.  

After completing his full sentence, throughout which he participated in hunger strikes and other protests about prison rights, Snyder was released in 1972. He tried to reconcile with his wife afterwards but failed. At the recommendation of a friend and fellow inmate from Danbury, he moved to Washington, D.C., to join a religious protest group working in the city.  

When he arrived, the war was ending, and factors such as a lack of transitional programs for veterans were causing the number of homeless Americans to increase dramatically. Snyder and the CCNV began to turn their attention from ending the war in Vietnam to supporting its survivors — from a war against war to a war against poverty.  

At the time, although he had never been homeless, he was well-informed about it, as his love of chatting to strangers had resulted in many conversations with homeless persons. He easily channeled the protest fervor he developed in prison to the specific cause of homelessness.  

The shift was physically, emotionally and spiritually trying. But Snyder was an energetic, engaged and engaging volunteer. He worked on many tasks, from community organizing to shelter management. His unique sense of creativity and ability to draw attention to issues were what made him most important to CCNV and the homeless community as a whole.  

Years passed, and Ronald Reagan became president in 1981. For many, the years of the Reagan administration are remembered for social affluence and a booming economy. However, those who were poor and homeless in that era remember it most for a dramatic reduction in services and constant reminders of their plight, like the myth that “welfare cheats” across America were at fault for their own poverty. “Mr. Reagan and Congress’ housing cutbacks are directly responsible for the homeless problem,” Snyder said of the administration. He felt more and more that it was time to intensify the protests.  

On Thanksgiving in 1981, tents appeared across from the White House in Lafayette Park. A sign hung amid them read “ReaganvilleReagonomics at Work.” The tent city, an intentional throwback to the Hooverville encampments of the Great Depression, held 20-25 homeless persons and activists each night for the next four months.  

As a self-proclaimed actor, this was exactly what Snyder wanted. A fine line had been drawn for observers between what was real and what was theater. A master of social pageantry and what now would be dubbed “street theater,” he was famous for his insatiable motivation to create a public scene. His exploits include orchestrating a blood spattering on the Capitol steps; sloshing through the world’s biggest pie yelling, “It’s all mine!”; fasting—nearly to death—three times; frequently jumping the White House fence; and sitting outside the White House, in the old Irish tradition of a person waiting outside the home of one who had wronged him or her without remorse.  

Snyder was criticized for protests that some called manipulative. Still, his flamboyant activism made him a minor celebrity. News groups often covered CCNV’s Snyderled protests, including a 60 Minutes episode featuring clips of him fasting to demand that the federal government repair the Federal City Shelter to make it livable for its 1,000- plus inhabitants. The episode aired just before Reagan’s second presidential election, and the federal government budged. Regardless of whether he was manipulative or not, Snyder was undeniably effective.  

Indeed, it seems that, if not cameras, at least eyes were always on Snyder. Not only the news captured his activities: he was also the subject of books, the PBS documentary Promises to Keep and the TV-movie Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story, starring Martin Sheen as Mitch.  

Martin Sheen, center, who played Snyder in a TV movie also joined him on the streets sometimes. Photo courtesy of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Snyder had an ability not only to make homelessness interesting, but also to make it the topic of the day. One might say he never “went Hollywood”; rather, Hollywood “went Mitch”. Sheen and other actors were so moved after working with him that many donated time, money and resources to the homelessness cause. Sheen even protested with and was arrested with him.  

With Snyder as its vocal leader, the homeless movement grew tremendously. In his time, he saw significant change not only for Federal City Shelter but for D.C. as a whole and America as a nation. His work was key in pushing homeless rights locally and nationally. He contributed to such legislation as Initiative 17, which was meant to mandate shelter for all, and the McKinney-Vento Act, which originally provided federal homeless assistance and now focuses on education for homeless children. He helped ensure that the Federal City Shelter became the CCNV, which continues to provide long-term shelter for more than 1,300 D.C. residents.  

Snyder achieved many accomplishments by the time he reached age 46. But all the effort exerted took its toll. Struggling against the devolution of homelessness policy in D.C. as well as a series of personal misfortunes, he hung himself in his room on the fourth floor of the CCNV on July 5, 1990.  

It was a rainy day in Washington, D.C. when Carol Fennelly, Mitch’s partner of 13 years, explained to a crowd of mourners that Mitch believed that good things happen when it rains. “Today,” she said to them, “he was wrong.”  

July 5, 2010, the 20th anniversary of his passing, was a hot day for the District. And summer’s oppressive heat is no worse on Mitch Snyder Place than at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The number of homeless persons in D.C. has increased by around 5 percent in the last year due to America’s economic downturn. Jobs are slim, and many do not pay a living wage.  

However, the CCNV now hums with the sound of residents returning from a day’s work, as 65 percent of the shelter’s residents are employed. The Fenty administration recently housed its 1,000th formerly homeless person. And the Obama administration has established a comprehensive 10-year plan to end homelessness, which it announced just two weeks ago.  

Despite this, homelessness continues, demoralizing those who have lived it. Yet even within bureaucracy, Americans are increasingly viewing homeless people as human beings with the respect they deserve. Though the work to end homelessness is far from complete, significant progress has been made. While this is to the great credit of all who have worked for the cause, it is only appropriate to give special remembrance to a homelessness advocate who was unique in his time and will stand out as such for all time. 

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