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.