The Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), the former Federal City College building and, at one time, the largest homeless shelter in the United States, sits at what used to be the intersection of D and 2nd Streets Northwest and what is now the intersection of D Street and Mitch Snyder Place.
Snyder joined CCNV in 1973 and passed away in July of 1990. In only 17 years, Mitch Snyder became one of the most influential, controversial and, perhaps, important homeless advocates in American history. Now, 20 years after his death Mitch Snyder is remembered not only by the street which holds his name but also for an ongoing legacy of humanizing the homeless people.
Mitch Snyder was born on August 14, 1943 to parents who were atheistic Jews. His father, an electrical firm executive, left the family for another woman when Mitch was only nine. As a result, Mitch and his mother, Beatrice, fell from a comfortable middle-class lifestyle and into semi-poverty. The situation made the two of them close, but, as Snyder himself said of his life, he struggled without a father figure, eventually joining a street gang, quitting school, and being arrested a dozen or more times by his sixteenth birthday. Mitch was sent to a reformatory school, from which he dropped out in under a year, and returned to his native Brooklyn to pursue work and night school.
It was during this time that Mitch began to get on his feet, in the traditional sense. He met a woman named Ellen Kleiman, who would, a short time later, become Ellen Snyder and the mother of their sons, Ricky and Dean. Mitch found work selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door and enjoyed that it allowed him to speak with people for a living. Yet, Snyder also believed that something was amiss.
A capitalist lifestyle was something Mitch simply could not settle himself around. “I think anyone who works for money is stark raving mad,” Snyder was quoted as saying, “because prostitution is bad, and it doesn't matter whether you're standing on Fourteenth Street or in a boardroom for AT&T.” In 1969, Mitch left his family and took to the road.
A year later, he was convicted of car theft in Las Vegas, a crime he always maintained he was innocent of committing. Mitch spent the majority of his jail term in Danbury, Connecticut where he met and studied the Bible with radical Catholic Priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan serving time for burning draft cards. The Berrigans helped teach Mitch about protesting, social justice, and dedication to a cause. After serving his sentence, Mitch was released from Danbury in 1972. Thereafter, he tried to reconcile with his wife. The attempt failed, and, at the recommendation of an inmate-friend in Danbury, Mitch moved to Washington DC to join CCNV, a Christian inspired, anti-war and social justice group, that was working in the city.
For Mitch, CCNV and DC was the right place at the right time. Always loquacious Snyder enjoyed chatting with strangers, often homeless people. At the time of his arrival in Washington, he, himself, had never been homeless, but the transition of the protest fervor he developed in prison to a specific cause was inevitable.
In Danbury, Snyder focused his political energies on opposing the war in Vietnam. When he moved to DC, the war was coming to a close. As a result of a lack of transitional programs for veterans, among other causes, the number of homeless Americans was increasing dramatically. Mitch, like the CCNV community he joined, began to turn attention from ending the Vietnam War to supporting its survivors, from fighting a war against war to fighting a war against poverty.
The shift was trying: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. But Mitch was an energetic, engaged, and inspiring volunteer. He engrossed himself in his work, committing to tasks as varied as pamphlet passing, community organizing, legal work, and shelter management. The same, however, was true of many of CCNV's volunteers at the time. What made Mitch most important to CCNV and the homeless community as a whole was his unique sense of creativity and a charismatic ability to draw attention to the cause.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President of the United States. For many the Reagan Administration is remembered for Reaganomics and ending the Cold War. Yet the poor and homeless of the time remember it rather for a dramatic reduction in housing and social services, Boss Tweed politics, and constant reminders that a mythical “welfare queen” in Chicago and exaggerated “welfare cheats” across America made their poverty their fault. "Mr. Reagan and Congress's housing cutbacks are directly responsible for the homeless problem," Snyder once said of the Administration.
On Thanksgiving Day 1981, tents appeared in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. A sign amidst the spread of tents read “Reaganville: Reagonomics 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. For many observers, a fine line had been drawn between what is real and what is theater. Such was precisely Snyder's desire.
In addition to being an activist, Snyder was a self-proclaimed actor. A master of social pageantry and what now would be dubbed “street theater,” Mitch was famed for his insatiable motivation to cause a public scene. Among his exploits, he orchestrated a blood spattering of the Capitol steps, sloshed through the world's biggest pie yelling “It's all mine,” sat outside the White House in an old Irish tradition of waiting outside the home of someone who had wronged you without appropriate remorse, often jumped the White House fence, and, most infamously, fasted, nearly unto death three times. These actions gained significant attention to Mitch, the cause of homelessness, and helped to energize and unify many homeless persons and advocates.
Mitch, both during and after his lifetime, has been criticized for manipulative protest, particularly for his fasts demanding various rights and services for the homeless. Snyder became something of a celebrity by means of his flamboyant activism. CCNV actions Mitch organized were frequently reported in the media. One of the most famous was a CBS 60-Minutes episode featuring clips of Mitch starving from a fast as part of a protest demanding that the federal government repair the Federal City Shelter to make it livable for its 1000 plus inhabitants. The episode aired just before President Reagan's second presidential election in 1984. With Snyder quite literally preparing to die, the federal government changed its policy and promised funds to the shelter. Manipulative or not, it is rarely said that Snyder was ineffective, and it is generally agreed that he reached and impacted diverse audiences with his message.
After all, it seems that eyes, if not cameras were always on Mitch. It was not only news media that captured Snyder's 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. But Mitch didn't only have an ability to make homelessness interesting, he made it the topic of the day.
It has been said of Snyder that he “never went Hollywood,” rather, “Hollywood went Mitch.” Sheen and other actors were so moved by working with Snyder that many of them donated time, money, and resources to the homelessness cause - Sheen even protested and was arrested with Snyder. In the mid to late 80's homelessness was a social issue in vogue.
With Snyder as its visual and vocal leader, the homeless movement grew tremendously. In his time, Mitch saw not only significant change for Federal City Shelter but also in DC as a whole and in America as a nation. Snyder's 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 provides federal homeless assistance. Snyder helped assure that the Federal City Shelter became CCNV, which did and continues to provide temporary-long-term shelter for more than 1300 DC residents.
Mitch Snyder accomplished a lot in 46 years of life, certainly more than most. The effort required took its toll. Struggling against devolution of homelessness policy in DC, as well as with a series of personal challenges, Snyder committed suicide on July 4, 1990.
July 5th, 1990 was a rainy day in Washington DC. Carol Fennelly, Mitch's partner of thirteen years, explained to a crowd of mourners that Mitch believed good things happen when it rains. “Today,” she said to them, “he was wrong.”
Today, 20 years later, it is not raining; it is simply very hot. Homeless persons in DC have increased around 5 percent in the last year due to America's economic downturn. Yet, the legacies of the efforts of Snyder and those who worked with him continue as new efforts are being established to address homelessness. DC Mayor Fenty's Administration recently celebrated the 1000th formerly homeless person housed by the Mayor's Initiative to End Homelessness. The Obama Administration recently announced the creation of a comprehensive 10-year federal plan to end homelessness.
The condition of homelessness continues to be demoralizing to those who live and have lived it. The work needed to be done to end homelessness is far from over, but the potential for large scale homelessness to be ended is a goal within reach. 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 dedicated, unique, and charismatic homeless advocate whose efforts continue to inspire across time.
Thank you and rest in peace, Mitch Snyder.
By Adam Sirgany, former NCH intern and Knox College (IL) '11