ODE TO MITCH SNYDER
“Only the chosen ones have eyes that really see
and ears that hear”
by Judy Jones
It’s alright baby Mama has you now
cuddled close to her breast where
you can finally finally rest
hadn’t a moment’s peace on earth
did ya hon
Oh Mitch Snyder
chosen driven haunted one
You shed your blood so others could live
taking in by the thousands to your
shelters’ warm arms
the poor unwanted neglected on earth
they flocked to your door knowin
a night’s peace could be had
with no questions asked
In the coldest darkest nights
thru blizzards rain sleet and snow
as we slept warmly in our
secure little beds
with dollar signs dancin thru
our empty little heads
you darlin were collectin the
remains of the no names
at the city morgue’s door and
holdin em tight to your breast
for you were the orphans’
god on earth Mitch
the daddy mother brother all in one
for the millions without anyone
on this earth you walked
alone and abused
but your mission my friend
The homeless of this land have
one less tear one more meal
and a night’s freedom
from the violent who
eat the weak on the streets
unconditional love you gave
24 hours a day
you took in what society throws away
yea child you walked in dem shoes of
prisoner tramp and thief
so you knew didn’t ya hon how it felt
on dem cold filthy concrete streets
humbled yourself before mankind
and now your chosen soul child
has gone home to god for its final rest
Oh yeah sweetie pie
your time for wailing done done
and for the price you paid Mitch Snyder
the whole world’s gonna honor and
pay homage to you thru eternity
don’t need to shed your tears
no more child
it’s time for the trumpets
and peace bells to ring out your
name to everyone on earth and
all the saints gather round
and place upon your precious head
the crown of the brave valiant
and those that perservered
in thy hands feet and brow
the stigmata do i see there
we we crucified thee mitch
with ignorance pride and
tightly closed eyes
and in your side with
your own hand
you placed the final wound
cause child you had given
all you came to earth to give
and winged your way back home
to god as angels do
as soon as their chosen works are thru
a saint’s halo shall grace thee
of this i am certain
and now mr. snyder may i
this unknown poet wash
your holy feet with my teardrops
dotted here and there
and dry them with my hair
you died for love mitch snyder
and i / we love you
Note: Two thousand people sleep and eat in his shelter nightly who otherwise would be on the cold streets of Washington D.C. They have named a street near the shelter after Mitch Snyder.
Six months after I met him, he died by hanging himself.
I am forever grateful that Mitch gave his life for the poorest of the poor. —Judy Jones
“..All this happens at a price. We cannot foresee a miraculous season that in which no deaths or injuries occur. We know that we will be out dispensing blankets in the wind and the snow. We also know that literally as well as figuratively, we will be breaking down the doors and walls that separate us from the very poor and that stand between them and their survival. We do it gladly, grateful that some of the scales have dropped from our eyes.”
Mitch Snyder, 1983
Mitch Snyder invested nearly twenty years of his life in an effort to draw public attention to the iniquitous distribution of resources in our society and the devastating human consequences of that distribution. He consistently challenged the privileged and comfortable to consider how their own lives and consumption played a part in the creation of homelessness and other forms of persistent poverty in the United States.
Snyder, when asked how one could make a contribution to the elimination of destitution, would quickly suggest that the person quit what ever it was that they were doing at the time and become part of the work being done with, and on behalf of the poor, at the Washington, D.C. based, Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) of which he was a member. He counseled those seeking his advise to take not just a theoretical or theological interest in the lives and misery of the poor, but to make an actual, personal commitment to making a difference.
During Snyder’s involvement at CCNV, the group ministered to the needs of thousands of homeless women, men and children in the nation’s capital. They also relentlessly called upon the federal and municipal government to respond to their needs with prompt, appropriate action.
Snyder’s singular commitment to the nation’s poor and homeless put him on a collision course with then President Ronald Reagan. Snyder and CCNV gained access to an abandoned, federal building, eight blocks from the Capitol and used it for what was intended to be a temporary, winter shelter for the homeless. When CCNV and those homeless staying at the shelter refused to leave in the spring, a confrontation lasting nearly a year began. It culminated with Snyder engaging in a fast which he declared would be “until death” or until the federal government agreed to provide sufficient funding to operate a shelter in the nation’s capital that would be model for the rest of America.
Snyder’s fast lasted over fifty days. The public sympathy resulting from it convinced President Reagan to approve funding for the shelter Snyder and CCNV demanded.
The story of that confrontation was eventually produced as a made for T.V. movie, Samaritans: The Mitch Snyder Story, in the Spring of 1986. Snyder and CCNV used the notoriety and moral authority they had acquired to help create a movement that carried out a nationally coordinated day of action against the scandal of homelessness in America.
On July l4, 1988, attention and support for the “National Affordable Housing Act” was generated through actions in over seventy cities across the U.S.A. Most involved building take overs and other acts of civil disobedience.
In October of 1989 the movement that Snyder helped create brought over 140,000 people to Washington to demand increased federal support for affordable housing.
Less than a year after that march on Washington Snyder was dead. He committed suicide in July of 1990.
Most agree that Snyder took his life because of a string of defeats-locally in D.C. and nationally-which left him depressed and disillusioned about the prospects for success for the movement he helped create and guided.
Those of us involved with First Church Shelter on a day to day basis do not believe that the circumstances surrounding Snyder’s death diminishes, in any way, the prophetic and inspirational nature of his life.
We think that the life he donated towards the goal of eliminating homelessness in America is a life that should not only be remembered but emulated. Indeed, most of us believe that, until those of us who enjoy lives of relative comfort and privilege recognize that our good fortune comes at the expense of others, there will be no significant diminishment in the suffering and degradation endured by the homeless. We believe that more lives need to be donated towards the creation of a just and peaceful world, a world in which the basic amenities many of us take for granted are enjoyed by all.
MITCH SNYDER’S BATTLEGROUND
The Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) is a collection of committed idealists, young people in search of direction, and disenfranchised people in search of stability: a moral family laboring like Hercules in the Aegean stables.
Volunteers for the homeless of America, the nucleus of the Community concentrates on devoting their time to embodying the ideals of equality and a better life for humanity.
Mitch Snyder, CCNV’s chief ideasmith, combines the street dweller’s tenacious will to survive with the cunning of a Madison Avenue shark.
A natural leader, Mitch is well-versed in the methods which influence the actions of others through the thoughtful framing of words. He is skillful at combining words and symbolic actions to influence the thoughts of others.
MAN MANIPULATES THE MOMENT WITH AN IDEA
By the careful manipulation of ideas, Mitch became a media personality. Begging for the unfortunates on the lowest rung of the social ladder, Mitch deftly plucked the heartstrings of America’s conscience to burn tiny holes in the apathy which allows poverty to flourish amid prosperity.
Thus far, of course, Mitch has not hit upon the combination which solves the problem of homelessness. However, he has unquestionably succeeded in rubbing a lot of noses in the problem.
The Harvest of Shame: A Pinch of Extortion
During election-mania 1984 CCNV backed Initiative 17, a law proposed to mandate shelter for the homeless, with a five-week series of demonstrations entitled The Harvest of Shame.
Spicing the Harvest of Shame with a pinch of extortion, Mitch headlined a much-publicized 51-day hunger strike by eleven community members, and in the eleventh hour leapt into the limelight of Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign.
To get Mitch out of the limelight I the incumbent capitulated. Mitch withdrew with the next President’s promise of a $5 million “model shelter.”
The site of this great step for mankind was to be the Federal government’s previously donated Old City College building at 425 D Street N.W., which had the utilitarian charm of any abandoned building . . . plus it was crowded with 800 men and women living in inhumane squalor as a stopgap against sleeping in alleys and eating out of garbage cans. .
A Cause Is Born
Francis of Assissi was not always a saint; he had been born a silver-tongued devil in a debased value system. However, he grew older, learned from experience, and changed his behavior to comport with morality. Breaking with the traditions of his father’s fathers made Francis one of God’s elect.
Years ago Mitch Snyder found himself in a Federal prison cell. Involved in the legitimate merchandizing of ideas from New York’s ad land, Mitch was found by a Federal Court also to have been involved in the illegal inter-state merchandizing of motor vehicles.
His punishment was a blessing in disguise. There was Mitch, cruising down the fast lane to hell … suddenly thrown into the slammer with the noted activist, Phil Berrigan.
The two men had traveled similar paths to the same cell. Mitch had run into a problem of a debased value system: sale of people’s automobiles without benefit to the people. Phil had been involved in the competition for people’s souls.
Phil repented. He quit the Catholic priesthood and began crying for peace in the war-torn wilderness of the Sixties, forging justice for the benefit of people. Phil was in jail for decrying the interests of the State, several rungs above Mitch on the ladder of moral understanding.
When Snyder left the Federal penal system it was with a mind fruitfully furrowed by Berrigan’s social plowshare. Berrigan had aided Mitch in his climb to personal repentance. Mitch returned to the city streets with a cause.
No longer would Mitch use other people’s cars for his own pleasure and comfort. Now he would try to convince people to use their cars for the pleasure and comfort of others.
Mitch, a Catholic by birth, found himself living by choice among the D.C. homeless. He remembered Jesus had said, “The poor you shall have with you always.” The problem was, Jesus never left a detailed blueprint for warehousing them. That, Mitch decided, was Mitch’s job: get the lepers out of the snow, and let them eat dumpster fare, at least for the moment.
Mitch Snyder–CCNV’s Director of Energy
Mitch is a very practical man. He understands that, after oxygen, people need food and shelter to sustain life. The energies of the Community are channeled as seems to Mitch most likely to provide food and shelter for those who are not very adept at providing for themselves. As director of CCNV’s- energy, Mitch focuses legal and public attention on the fact that American society allows people to live on the street and to eat out of garbage cans.
No harm in drawing attention to that situation, many of his critics have observed, but there is more to the problem of homelessness than garbage stew and abandoned buildings.
Mitch, however, sees the first step toward re-integrating society’s outcasts is to provide them with an unstructured base from which they may have the opportunity to build for themselves.
Mitch’s focus helped the Community to raise enough donations to provide and improve the quality of stew, won enough lawsuits to raise a roof over the heads of folks who wouldn’t otherwise have one, and raised enough social awareness to extort promises from the government.
The Moment Changes, And So Does The Score
Recovered from the “five million dollar fast,” Mitch set about plans for renovating the model shelter. However, when it came time to do the actual work some six months after the election, the President’s men and women thought a $2.7 million shelter would be model. Mitch’s architects swore it couldn’t be done for less than $7.5 million.
The Administration slammed the negotiations to an early close by scrapping the entire idea, and threatening to pitch Mitch and his 800 wards into the streets.
But Mitch tried to turn the tables by dragging the Health and Human Resources Department into Federal Court. District Court Judge Richey said that the Feds could oust Mitch, but opined that the government really should do something about the poverty-stricken folks who were sheltering at 425 D.
Emerging from the courtroom, the Administration’s attorneys admitted that it was civilized of Judge Richey to express concern for the homeless, but doubted whether his concern carried any legal clout.
So Mitch took the Government straight to the Court of Appeals.
The Appeals Court told the Administration that Judge Richey’s humanitarian musings were indeed weighty . . . to the extent that the government was prevented from booting the shelter’s population out of 425 D until replacement shelter could be found, bed for bed.
D. C. Coalition For The Homeless Steps In
The D.C. Coalition for the Homeless is an organization of politically well-connected, religious do-gooders, professionals dependent upon the existence of the poverty-stricken for their livelihoods, and a couple of individuals genuinely interested in a solution to the problem of people living on the fringe.
The Coalition sees the first step toward re-integrating the outcasts is to structure their environment for them.
Dennis Bothea, one of the politically well-connected Coalition members, was instrumental in spearheading the opposition to CCNV’s Initiative 17. On November 4, 1984 the Initiative passed with 72 per cent of the vote.
On November 16, 1984, Mayor Barry, another master of legal and symbolic action, announced the formation of the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Shelter and Support Services. Mr. Bothea was named the $40,000 Chief of that office, and the Mayor laid plans to take CCNV’s Initiative 17 to Court.
A D.C. Superior Court judge invalidated the Initiative, and Mr. Bothea continues to pick up his paycheck, although we have been unable to locate any homeless people favorably impressed with his efforts.
“For too long the Coalition has watched with dismay the cruel and inhumane treatment of these homeless people as political hostages for those seeking to maintain a national reputation.”
With those words the Coalition dove into the wake of Mitch’s ill-fated negotiations over the fate of the “hostages” at 425 D. They proposed a blueprint for humane warehousing that purportedly would take further steps toward rehabilitation, by creating more welfare professionals at an annual pricetag of $11 million.
The Coalition’s proposal reasoned that “had President Reagan not been so eager to intervene in a local situation” (assumedly Snyder’s hunger strike), “these citizens would not be the hostages of political gain” (assumedly Snyder’s).
“Therefore the Coalition calls on all local service providers” (members of the Coalition?), “the District government” (Major’s Office of Emergency Shelter and Support Services?), “and the Federal government” (Department of Health and Human Resources?) to make good the President’s promise . . . to the homeless across the country.”
Pat Makin of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless feels that Mitch has lost sight of reality. Because Mitch devotes so much energy to keeping a crumbling roof over the heads of grumbling residents, Ms. Makin feels he can’t see the solution for the problems.
“Future relief is never reason for not doing what should be done,” Mitch says.
Many residents at 425 D feel that Hollywood should have paid them $150,000 for their stories. But Mitch (CCNV) got the money, they say. They feel as though they are being used as paving material for his path to stardom, and resent his years of hard work, which they view as his good fortune at their expense.
Motives are a matter between the mover and his Creator. Perhaps Mitch, the residents, and the members of the Coalition would all be well advised to examine their motives carefully. All the same, whether Mitch is this, the Coalition is that, or they are both something else, some fans remain:
(1) each night somewhere between 400 and 800 homeless “residents” choose The spend the night at 425 D;
(2) the Coalition, Mitch and the ‘residents” all agree that 425 D is somewhat further from a model shelter than Mercury is from Pluto;
(3) while the Community for Creative Non-Violence may not have created heaven on D Street. they have at least recognized a need to which local service providers have, for too long, fumed a blind eye; and
(4) by poking them in their blind eye, Mitch has managed to get the real culprits to “call upon” themselves to solve the problem which for too long they have watched with too little dismay.
Whenever a moment is manipulated, as certain as the laws of physics that manipulation will have a reaction. Over the course of the years the moments manipulated by Mitch have amounted to hours. Now most of Mitch’s hours are devoted to dealing with those reactions.
Correct or incorrect in respect to his practical solutions to society’s cruel and inhumane treatment of its pariahs, to think that there is a government administrator who does more hands-on dirty work than Mitch, or that the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless, the District government, or the Federal government has done as much, on a per capita basis, is delusional.
“The D.C. Coalition isn’t the villain in this tragedy,” according to Snyder. “The government dangles a bloody piece of meat (funds for the homeless) just beyond teach of a pit full of savage beasts (groups for the homeless). The beasts claw one another to shreds fighting for the prize.”
Snyder made those comments a few days before CCNV and the government went back to the Court of Appeals, where the feds pulled a surprise move.
In the courtroom, counsel for the government announced that the administration had reached an agreement with the D.C. Coalition. The government had agreed to give the Coalition $3.7 million, two temporary buses, a building in Anacostia, and “supplies.” In return the Coalition would house the residents presently at 425 D.
The Court, satisfied with those promises, agreed that the government could kick CCNV out of 425 D when the other arrangements were completed.
Now time will tell whether the hostages have been freed, or if it was merely the fattest beast that got the bloody piece of meat. And, if the Coalition fails to solve the problem, what will Mitch do next?
Happy Birthday, Mitch Snyder
Belated, actually– his birthday was a couple of weeks ago. God, I miss him. Mitch, a hardcore homeless and housing activist, is one of my heroes.
He came to Arise in 1988 and convinced us to turn out as many people as we could for a Washington, D.C. demonstration taking place the next year in support of the National Affordable Housing Act. This was a challenge for a poor people’s organization, but, with other allies in Western Mass, we did it. I still have a picture of our group at the march, holding a Western Mass banner high and proudly, It’s hung in my various offices for eighteen years.
“On July l4, 1988, attention and support for the “National Affordable Housing Act” was generated through actions in over seventy cities across the U.S.A. Most involved building take overs and other acts of civil disobedience.n October of 1989 the movement that Snyder helped create brought over 140,000 people to Washington to demand increased federal support for affordable housing.
Less than a year after that march on Washington Snyder was dead. He committed suicide in July of 1990.” First Church Shelter, Cambridge.
This site talks about the accomplishments of Mitch’s hunger fasts and acts of non-violent civil disobedience. I think Jim Stewart must have written it– we had a chance to work together many years ago.
Mitch has been much on my mind these days, especially since Gerry McCafferty, the city’s coordinator of homeless and special needs housing, mentioned Mitch in her opinion piece on homelessness in the Republican the Sunday before last. It turns out that Gerry was at that D.C. demonstration with Mitch, too. What she described as her most enduring memory of the day was being in a civil disobedience action and being yelled at by Rep. Barney Frank, D-MA, one of the sponsors of the housing legislation, who told Mitch and her group was undermining support for the bill.
Gerry told this story as part of explaining why she was now seemingly on the other side– working within the system.
My most enduring memory of the day was the sea of people, most poor, many homeless, feeling a sense of our power, feeling hope and belief in the possibility of change.
And, after all, the legislation did pass. I’ll bet Barney Frank even voted for it.
I love the way people like Gerry have such selective memories about the role of poor people in social change, and about the use of direct action, civil and otherwise, as a catalyst for that change.
Was homelessness even on the city of Springfield, Massachusetts’ radar before Larry Dunham froze to death? Was there a plan before homeless people organized a tent city in the spring that lasted six months? I know there was not.
Recently I went back and reread the entire Homes within Reach document, the city’s plan to end chronic homelessness within ten years. The plan does well making use of scarce resources to accomplish as much as possible. However, one resource left totally untapped is homeless and at-risk.people themselves.
I was supposed to be on that task force, along with Christina, one of the leaders of Sanctuary City. We were each at a couple of meetings, but then somehow never got notices….I’d call Russ Denver’s office, then chair of the task force and still head of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, and ask when the next meetings were taking place…but we never heard…and then we heard there was a draft plan and it could be revised….but you know what it’s like, once the solution is framed, all that’s allowed after that is fine-tuning. (Nothing like splitting into subcommittees to limit the real number of decision-makers.
At the heart of all of this, of course, is class prejudice and self-interest, manifesting as the need to control those deemed lesser than you who are also perceived as a threat to your well-being.
Why else would human service workers talk about “servicing” people?
Why else would the Department of Transitional Assistance call a family in need “an assistance unit?”
Why else would the desires of homeless people be discounted so that those who “know better”can make the decisions?
The city is happy, now; the powers that be have had their way, the Warming Place shelter has been forced to close and the plan to end homelessness is underway. I hope the best of it succeeds, but the “managing” and “handling” of homeless people makes me sick.
Tonight when I was looking up a few facts about Mitch, I stumbled on a blog called Apesmas’ Lament– and a post just written on July19!–about the writer’s memories of Mitch Snyder. It’s a great piece and deserves reading. He talks about the Port of Seattle’s refusal to sell to King County 162 apartments that could be made available to desperately poor people, choosing instead to demolish them. He ends by asking, “I wonder what Mitch would do?”
That’s one of the questions I ask myself. Now, when many poor people start asking that question…..