What Would Mitch Snyder Say and Do Today?

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.

By Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing

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

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3 Responses to What Would Mitch Snyder Say and Do Today?

  1. Great blog post .. Thanks very much for your space :)

  2. Brian Anders says:

    Hey Bob, Brian Anders here a member of the old CCNV, and of the National Coalition for the Homeless in the 1980′s. I worked with Mitch and other members of the community from 1983, until 1992. I miss the sense of urgency and the level of compassion that existed in DC in the 1980′s. Now living in the , “I-phone generation, and seeing the numbers of the homeless on the rise in this country I realize that without a committed group of folks living and working together, in community to not only provide service, but also offer resistance to our self servicing and heartless government our fight to improve the quality of live for our brothers and sisters on the streets is gonna be an up hill climb. But with faith, and some crazy creative thinking we might not end homelessness, but where we can make things better of one human being we have started the process of changing the world one human at a time……

  3. JJC says:

    Mitch did a lot of creative civil resistance because that’s what works. The best, if not only, way that major social progress has been achieved in America involves a combination of direct action civil resistance (especially civil disobedience of unjust laws and policies) with campaigns related to legislation and/or litigation.
    Social progress and regression in America have followed a fairly regular cycle for many decades now. That cycle suggests a probable low for about 2012, with a high around 2028. A long way off, but we can channel our advocacy and activism toward making that next progressive high greater – and maybe sooner. Remember, it was in 1954, some ten years before the 1964/65 Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Brown vs. Board of Education, that education must be desegregated. Thirteen months later, Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which led to integrated buses in hundreds of towns and cities in about a year.
    Further challenges to segregated water fountains, lunch counters, etc. succeeded in the years to follow. Why? In no small part, because the establishment through law of justice in one important setting so obviously ought to yield justice in other related settings. It is very important for us to apply a significant amount of our activism to expansion of housing rights through legislation and through court cases.
    Support legislative efforts to expand the right to housing – even when limited in scope. And get involved in supporting court cases – such as the `Lakewood Tent City’ case in Ocean County, NJ – which have the potential for a ruling establishing, affirming, or expanding the right to housing.
    The occasional march, vigil, protest, rally, or sit-in wouldn’t hurt either – in fact, these are essential elements of advocacy, as Mitch well knew. Just keep your eye on the big picture – and help develop and implement strategy and tactics most likely to actually acheive progress.

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