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Archive for July, 2010

What Would Mitch Snyder Say and Do Today?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness

By Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing

Twenty years ago, the movement to end homelessness lost its most charismatic leader, Mitch Snyder. Snyder and Robert Hayes, NCH’s founder, are considered to be the two leading national homeless advocates in the 1980’s.

If Mitch were still alive today, I wonder what Mitch would do and say about how homelessness has become a way of American life and so acceptable by societal norms? Think homeless children, the elderly, or even veterans.

Mitch would definitely not be seen attending the proverbial annual homelessness conference where too few homeless people can be found. Nor would he spend a year to write a plan about ending homelessness ten years down the road.

Regardless of the political party in power, he would be pounding on the White House doors or jumping its gates and roaming the Halls of Congress shouting that people are literally dying homeless and action is needed now!

Mitch would be doing the same tried and proven effective tactics (living on the streets in solidarity with the homeless, using the media to prick the American conscience, civil disobedience, hunger fasts) that resulted in his shelter being opened and renovated, the passage of the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act in 1987, and in the gathering of 250,000 people (including 25,000 homeless people) for the 1989 Housing Now march here in Washington, DC.

While traditional lobbying is still essential, I wonder if Mitch’s tactics of the 1980’s should be resurrected in these troubled economic times? Probably yes.

His legacy is evident today at the Community for Creative Nonviolence shelter in Downtown DC that continues to save lives and is one of the few programs nationwide run by the homeless volunteers.

It can also be found in the legions of youth and homeless people that he inspired who are the homeless advocates, providers, volunteers, and donors today.

As time marches on, people still remember that there was some fiery homeless activist back in the 1980’s, but have forgotten his name. I always delight in letting people know his name. And without fail, that taxicab driver or shelter volunteer always speaks of their respect and admiration for Mitch who was willing to go to jail or even risk death by fasting for homeless people.

Do we need another national leader like Mitch? Probably not. Our movement now has many mini-leaders including homeless and formerly homeless people.

I just hope that there is a little bit of Mitch Snyder in all of us which keeps our eyes on the prize of stopping this injustice of homelessness in our midst.

Forget about how he died by suicide, but how he lived his life as a true blue advocate for the homeless.

See a young advocate’s perspective on Mitch Snyder’s legacy here, or read more about Mr. Snyder’s historical impact here.

A Young Advocate’s Perspective: Mitch Snyder

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness

On a late September day in 2009, I trekked from the NCH offices to make visit to the White House and happened, instead, upon a collection of people and a sign that read “61st Day of Fast.” I didn’t know such a thing was possible. Surely one would have to have died. I approached the group eagerly, wanting to know more. I was not only intrigued but in absolute awe of the dedication and stamina it must have taken.

More accurately, I was in awe until I saw the pot bellies and flush cheeks of the fasters who were resting on lawn chairs while another protester rambled incoherently into a bull horn. These were not the Ghandian thin protesters I thought of when I imagined a fight for justice. Enraged and grumbling to myself about being duped, I asked a volunteer from the group to explain what was going on. The fast, she explained was rotational. Each person fasted for a short period and was replaced by another group member. The result was a longer fasting period without any real danger to the fasters themselves.

To be fair to the group of fasters, I didn’t and don’t know anything substantial about their cause. Furthermore, my protest experience is comparatively limited; it certainly has never put my life in immediate danger or my body in prison, for that matter. That all said, I continue to hold a certain contempt for insincere protest. One may fast for one day, ten days, to death, if the cause calls for such action. But it is a slight to one’s own commitment to claim a 100-day fast because 100 men have each fasted 1 day each. The value of a protest, after all, is in its earnestness.

I was still bothered by my White House experience two weeks later, when, back at the NCH offices, Executive Director Neil Donovan was looking through a pile of materials from the 1980’s. “Is that Mitch?” he asked himself. “This must have been the second fast. Wow look at him.” Donovan’s voice was low, but the Wow was sincere enough to send another intern and I skidding across the room to see what was in his hand.

The picture Donovan held, which was taken in 1987, showed several people assisting a hollow-cheeked, empty-eyed man off the White House lawn. A flash of excitement went through me. This, I thought, this was activism with earnestness. And this, I learned was Mitch Snyder.

Whatever is said of Mitch Snyder, what should be remembered is that he was what one sees in this picture: stark, earnest. The image of a hollow-bodied, frail Snyder is frightening. It implies not only mortality but a belief in a cause that forgoes such idle human concern. It states faith that commands respect. This is protest as it should be, protest of belief and value.

Neil Donovan gave the photo one last look before handing it off to the small crowd of NCH staffers that had collected around him. The picture was passed around quickly with each person stealing a glimpse and a gasp before passing it off again. Immediately, anyone who knew anything about Snyder began to share it. And, as swiftly as the chatter began, it subsided and the staff returned to work.

This, it seems, is what is now lacking in the homelessness movement -or any movement for that matter. The ability to not only say, I believe, but to fight for that belief, time and again. It’s not my place to demand homeless advocates all begin to starve themselves. Protest of any kind is a matter of personal faith. I cannot and will not force earnestness upon others, such is a matter of free will. But earnestness appears to be fading with an older generation, and without it, so to an ability to make meaningful systemic change. No, I cannot force earnestness on others, but I have no doubt in my mind that it is time this generation of advocates found some. R.I.P. Mitch Snyder.

Read more about NCH’s reflections on Mitch Snyder’s legacy.

By Adam Sirgany, former NCH intern and Knox College (IL) ’11

Is it legal to restrict food-sharing?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness, Criminalization, Food Sharing

By Jackie Dowd

The food-sharing in downtown Orlando went on as usual last Wednesday night, despite the decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the city’s ordinance restricting groups and individuals from sharing food with homeless and hungry people in public parks.

The 2-1 ruling, handed down on July 6, overturned a trial court’s determination that the food-sharing events were expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment. The federal appeals court found that the likelihood was not great that a reasonable observer would understand Orlando Food Not Bombs’ conduct of simply feeding people to be “truly communicative.”

The court also ruled that the ordinance does not violate the right to free exercise of religion by the First Vagabonds Church of God, a ministry by and for the homeless. The ordinance applies to about 40 of Orlando’s 99 parks, and limits food-sharing events to two per park per year.

In the wake of the court decision: What’s next?

Way back at the beginning of this case, we told ourselves: “If we win, then we win. But even if we lose, we win.”

That’s because even then, in the summer of 2006, we were thinking about the big picture. What the First Vagabonds Church of God v. City of Orlando lawsuit accomplished was to bring the discussion of homelessness and poverty out into the open in Orlando, in a way that it never has before. Making sure that discussion continues is vitally important, and that will be an important consideration in deciding what the next steps will be.

There are several legal options, such as seeking a rehearing before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. We have a few more days to decide exactly what to do.

Many people have asked why we didn’t pursue a freedom of assembly claim. At the beginning of the case, we did assert that the ordinance violated the right to freedom of assembly. But the trial judge ruled for the city on that claim, determining that the members of Food Not Bombs and their homeless friends are free to assemble in the park so long as they do not serve food.

There also are options outside the courtroom. Perhaps the most important is making sure the food-sharings continue, as they have every Wednesday evening for more than five years.

Moving to outside the restricted zone (a 2-mile radius of City Hall) is being discussed. While there are good reasons for staying at Lake Eola Park, the members of Orlando Food Not Bombs are concerned about the impact of increased police scrutiny on the homeless and hungry folks they are helping. Many of the people who come to eat a healthy vegan meal have outstanding warrants or other issues with law enforcement. In past, attendance has been low when police are present at the food-sharing.

Lake Eola Park – often described as the “crown jewel” of Orlando’s 99 parks – was chosen for its symbolic value in conveying a message to the upper-middle class folks who live and work in what is often described as a gentrified area of downtown. In many ways, that message has been delivered.

Continuing the public discussion of homelessness and poverty may be the most important item on our “to do” list. Food Not Bombs will be meeting with other groups that have been using the park for sharing food, looking at the big picture and planning ways to build stronger community and political will to reduce homelessness and poverty.

And there’s an even bigger picture to keep in mind. The United States does not guarantee its citizens the right to food. Twenty-two other countries have enshrined the right to food in their constitutions, either for all citizens or specifically for children. Our friends at the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty have been working hard to promote the right to housing set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family including … housing.”

So there’s a lot of work still to do. The food-sharings will continue and we will be working toward some larger goals, too.

The silver lining here may be that the continued sense of injustice in the wake of the 11th Circuit’s decision just may help us accomplish our larger goals.

Resources:
National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty’s (NLCHP) Food Sharing Report

NLCHP’s information page on housing and other human rights

Opinion piece about the court decision

Jackie Dowd is an NCH AmeriCorps*VISTA Member and Volunteer Lawyer who coordinates the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau in conjunction with the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida in Orlando. Check out Jackie’s blog on homeless and other social justice issues at http://www.jackiedowd.blogspot.com/

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