Fighting for D.C.'s Homeless: Mitch Snyder and CCNV

Homeless Advocate Mitch Snyder, Actor Martin Sheen, Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, January 1987 (Source: Boston Mayor's Office, via Wikipedia)
Mitch Snyder and Martin Sheen pose with Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn in 1987.  Sheen portrayed Snyder in the 1986 film, Samaritan.  (Source: Boston Mayor's Office via Wikipedia)

“Anyone who thinks anyone is on the streets by choice is saying that out of a bed; a warm, comfortable home with a roof over their heads, money in their pocket and food in their stomachs.” – Mitch Snyder

1981 saw Ronald Reagan take residency in the White House after defeating incumbent Jimmy Carter.  On the streets of Washington, D.C., a persistent issue became increasingly more strident.  Reflecting on the period, WAMU host Kojo Nnamdi remarked, “We began to see large numbers of panhandlers appearing on the streets of Washington."[1] According to U.S. General Accounting Office, rising unemployment, a decrease in services for those suffering from mental illness, and “cuts in public assistance and the decline in the number of low-income housing units” had increased the homeless population.[2] The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated between 250,000 and 350,000 persons were homeless nationwide.  D.C.’s Community for Creative Non-Violence, a homeless advocacy organization, put forth a more startling figure: between two and three million.[3] In comparison to what would come later, these diverging statistics would be one of the more minor disagreements between the Federal government and CCNV. 

CCNV was founded in 1970 by a chaplain and students at the George Washington University for grassroots organizing and direct action in Washington, D.C.  Initially, the collective’s attention was directed at protesting the Vietnam War.[4]Following the War’s end, the CCNV turned its attention to homelessness.[5]

By the close of the decade a dynamic leader would bring international attention to the group.  Mitch Snyder was the product of working-class Brooklyn, New York.  After going to prison for car theft, he began studying under Daniel and Philip Berrigan, priests imprisoned for destroying draft records.[6]  Influenced by the Berrigan brothers’ activism, Snyder found his life’s purpose in Catholicism steeped in social justice. Upon his 1972 release, Snyder brought his anti-war idealism to Washington, D.C., what he believed to be the best place to “try and create a more political center.”[7]  After the withdrawal for U.S. forces, Snyder’s moralistic energy was perfect for the CCNV.[8]  He quickly rose to become the face of the organization by the early 1980s.  

Faced with a growing homeless crisis, the Reagan administration made a surprising policy decision in 1983.  Vacant federal buildings became available to “local governments and charitable organizations” for use as emergency shelters at a “cost basis.”  The properties included thousands of HUD and Department of Defense owned structures across the country, including 425 D Street NW, a federal building last used by the University of the District of Columbia.[9]

As Susan Fennelly, Mitch Snyder’s companion and fellow CCNV activist later related, “One of our community members, Justin Brown, found an old UDC building at Second and E, Northwest, that the General Services Administration had up for auction.[10] Homeless advocate Susan Baker, wife of Reagan’s Chief-of-Staff James Baker, had previously helped CCNV secure surplus food from military commissaries for the homeless.[11]  So, with Baker’s help, CCNV signed a $1 dollar lease on the building in January 1984, for use as a temporary shelter.[12]  With this agreement, CCNV and the Government entered into a unique arrangement, to say the least.  Aside from being a federally-owned building, the neglected structure sat on prime real estate.  A short walk from Union Station and the U.S. Capitol, 425 D Street NW provided CCNV with a Metro-accessible location, close to services and within earshot of Congress.

While securing the lease was a huge step, conflict soon emerged.  Having sat vacant for some time, the building was in dire need of repair so Snyder and CCNV pushed the government to renovate.  The building did not have a sprinkler system and falling plaster exposed pipes. There were only four showers serving between 600 and 800 persons a night according to Snyder’s estimates.[13]  Government officials argued that they were not responsible for upgrades under the terms of the 1983 policy decision, and dug in.[14]      

In September 1984 Snyder began a hunger strike to try to force the government’s hand to make repairs before the winter.  Snyder told reporters, “People’s lives are at stake, many more than mine.  I don’t want to die but there is no better way than this that I could serve the people out on the streets.”[15]  As his body began to falter, Snyder held tight to his demands: $5 million in federal money to renovate the shelter.  Federal officials reiterated that “they did not intend to respond to Snyder’s demands."[16]  Both publicly and privately, officials urged him to end the strike.  But as the strike languished, Mitch Snyder was becoming more of a political controversy.  Reagan officials desperately wanted to end the strike before the November 6 election, and avoid Snyder’s death.[17]

On November 4, just two days before the election, 60 Minutes was set to air a report on Snyder’s hunger strike.  With public opinion leaning towards Snyder, and pressure from House Speaker Tip O’Neill, negotiations resumed.   Snyder and Fennelly along with Susan Baker worked out a deal with Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret M. Heckler and Harvey Vieth, chairman of the HHS’s Task Force on Food and Shelter for the Homeless.[18]

That same day, an emaciated Mitch Snyder was rushed to Howard Hospital.  While hospitalized, HHS Secretary Hecker called to inform Snyder that President Reagan had personally approved the agreement while en route to a campaign stop aboard Air Force One.[19]   With the strike over after 51 days, Heckler announced that "the administration pledges to turn the decaying, vermin-infested facility into a ‘model physical shelter structure to house the homeless . . . to be used as long as a critical need exists.'"[20]  It was curiously open-ended language.

Following the strike’s end, CCNV set about to create the model shelter.  Architect Conrad Levenson was hired to draft plans with an emergency grant of $17,500 from the National Endowment for the Arts.  Levenson and his team developed a plan that would cost between the original $5 and $10 million.[21]  In addition to services like an infirmary and welcoming aesthetics, the proposed design would make the building ADA compliant.[22]

Once again, however, the Federal government had different ideas.  In May 1985, the General Services Administration and the Task Force on Food and Shelter for the Homelessness countered with an offer of just under $3 million for a bare bones, barracks-style overhaul of the building. CCNV rejected what Snyder deemed a "patch job."[23]  With the Government and CCNV at an impasse, all bets were off and the General Services Administration announced that the building would be demolished.[24]

With negotiations stalled, it looked as though CCNV had been given the Federal styled, bureaucratic runaround.  Even more ominous for CCNV, HHS Secretary Margaret M. Heckler, who had brokered the November 1984 deal, was on her way out.  She would be begrudgingly accept the position of Ambassador to Ireland in October of 1985.[25]  Heckler’s Chief-of-Staff, C. McClain Haddow became the new point-person on negotiations with CCNV and his contempt for Snyder and CCNV was clear.[26]  “We call him ‘Hollywood Mitch’ because all he really cares about is the attention he gets.’“[27]  The comment was made in reference to a deal that Snyder had signed for a TV movie about his hunger strike, starring Martin Sheen. The proceeds from the film were to benefit CCNV.[28] 

Time seemed to be running out on CCNV’s model shelter.  With July 10, 1985 announced as the day the “squalid” shelter would close, CCNV was informed it would have to vacate so that demolition proceedings could move forward.  In response, CCNV turned to the courts.  “We have lots of lawyers, and I don’t think we’ll have any difficulty finding a judge who can slow this process down so that it will take six months or a year,”  threatened Snyder.[29]  His words turned out to be prophetic. 

Speaking before a House panel on August 1, 1985, Snyder stated the obvious, that if the 800 bed shelter were to close “its residents will be forced to sleep in parks and abandoned cars because there are not enough beds in other District shelters."[30]  Empathetic yet impartial, U.S. District Judge, Charles Richey ruled that the shelter could close, if an alternate site could be provided.  In his ruling he stated that, “No less than the President of the United States should treat this as a national emergency . . . in order that the full impact of the nation's resources can be brought to bear to eliminate this national disgrace."[31]  In line with the ruling, the federal Department of Health and Human Services announced that funds promised by President Reagan allocated to renovate the CCNV shelter would be given to the “District government for alternative housing."[32]           

The alternative the Feds identified was the former Department of Defense War College in Anacostia Park.[33]  To run the facility, the Federal officials selected the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless.  CCNV was quick to shine light through the gaping holes in this proposal to move the homeless away from vital services to isolated National Park Service land in Southeast, Washington, D.C.  As one shelter resident explained, there were obvious benefits to the 425 D St. NW location: “A lot of the churches around here  give away clothes and food.  They don’t do it like that in Anacostia."[34]  Similarly, Ward 8 citizens criticized the new plan as "just another attempt to dump unwanted facilities on an area of the District that has been dumped on too much."[35]

On Kojo Nnamdi’s Evening Exchange, Mitch Snyder participated in a roundtable which included Lawrence Guyot of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless.  Guyot compared Snyder to Jim Jones and called for him to release the residents of the CCNV shelter to the Anacostia facility.  Snyder deftly responded “You are being used—as a wedge between us and the administration.  You’re gonna have to move out of the way and when you do, we’re gonna face the administration head on and...we’re gonna push ‘em right out of this damn city ‘cause they are the most vile, vulgar, insensitive, inhumane, human beings we’ve ever seen and you shouldn’t let them use ya."[36] 

When the Coalition vans arrived at the CCNV shelter to transport residents to Anacostia they were met with opposition and left with fewer than ten people.[37] In December 1985, U.S. Marshals posted eviction notices, but Snyder and residents vowed to remain.  C. McClain Haddow warned the standoff could end violently citing the number of CCNV shelter residents who were Vietnam War vets—men who, in his words, "specialized at doing one thing: killing people."[38]

Thankfully, the eviction and violence never came.  Mayor Marion Barry stepped in and announced that D.C. police would not assist Federal Marshals in pushing out the shelter residents.  On December 28, 1985 President Reagan halted the evictions paving the way for renovations to finally begin.  It would take another two years, two more hunger strikes and the publicity from the movie starring Martin Sheen, but a $6.5 million renovation was unveiled at a ribbon cutting in February 1987.[39]  The revamped facility had 600 beds, a new kitchen, a new dining area and additional showers.  

It was a victory, but for Snyder, only a partial one. He worried that the renovated shelter would not suffice to meet Washington’s needs. “We still have to come up with another $5 million in the next 60 to 90 days if we’re going to have the rest of the building renovated by winter."[40]  The battle to shelter the homeless in the nation’s capital would continue.

Epilogue

The story of Mitch Snyder and CCNV was brilliantly preserved in Ginny Durrin’s Oscar-nominated 1988 documentary, Promises to Keep.  The film shows Snyder and CCNV engaged in an unrelenting struggle with the U.S. government.  After the numerous emotionally-taxing scenes, the story ends on an uplifting note—a completed model homeless shelter.  The looks of joy and relief on the faces of CCNV personnel are powerful.[41]

Sadly, however, for Mitch Snyder the creation of the model shelter did not bring personal happiness.  On July 5, 1990, he was found hanged in his room, two days after he was last seen alive.  Notes lamented his failed romantic relationship with Carol Fennelly and the D.C. Council’s recent moves to weak emergency shelter laws.[42] Councilman John A. Wilson spoke of the extreme burnout Snyder may have felt, eerily before his own suicide by hanging,  “I think America is hard on sensitive people, and I think Mitch was an extremely sensitive person who took his successes and failures personally."[43] 

Learn more

In 1987, a Fort Wayne, Indiana television station did a special report on homelessness in America. Reporter Ken Owen traveled from Fort Wayne to Washington, D.C. to interview Mitch Snyder along with Indiana politicians, including then Senator Dan Quayle.  

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ Washington 1980s. Glenn Baker, Simon Epstein, WETA, 2014.
  2. ^ “Homelessness: A Complex Problem And The Federal Response” General Accounting Office,  https://www.gao.gov/assets/150/142674.pdf p.  1.
  3. ^ Ibid., p. 8.
  4. ^ Pichirallo, Joe. “U.S. Buildings Available for Shelter.” The Washington Post (1974-Current); February. 26, 1983. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. A 1.
    McCarthy, Colman. “J. Edward Guinan, former Catholic priest who ministered to the homeless, dies at 78.” The Washington Post; January 3, 2015.https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/j-edward-guinan-former-catholic-priest-who-ministered-to-the-homeless-dies-at-78/2015/01/03/7b2c33fa-92e8-11e4-a900-9960214d4cd7_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.4f79590ba569
  5. ^ http://www.theccnv.org/history.htm
  6. ^ Spencer, Duncan. "Mitch Snyder: From Brooklyn Punk, to Madison Ave., to D.C. Protest." Washington Star, January 22, 1979. Newsbank, Access World News. p. A-6.
  7. ^ Ibid., Almost immediately, Snyder found himself “in D.C. Jail serving three months for pouring blood on the files in the South Vietnam Procurement Office.”
  8. ^ Ibid.
  9. ^ Pichirallo, Joe. “U.S. Buildings Available for Shelter.” The Washington Post (1974-Current); February. 26, 1983. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. A 1.
  10. ^ Yarrison, Mary. “Activist Carol Fennelly Creates Home Behind Prison Walls.” Washingtonian; November 21, 2014.
  11. ^ Booth Conroy, Sandra G. “Chronicles; From the Banquets to The Grates; Party No-Shows Mean Food for the Hungry.”  Washington Post November 27, 1988. p. 121.
  12. ^ Boodman, Sandra G. “Reagan Agrees to Refurbish Homeless Shelter: Snyder Ends Hunger Strike Snyder Ends 51-Day Hunger Strike As Agreement Is Reached on Shelter.” The Washington Post (1974-Current); November 05, 1984. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. A 1.
  13. ^ Boodman, Sandra G. “Shelter Gets Aid; Problems Remain: Critics Raise Questions.”  Washington Post November 11, 1984. (1974-Current) ProQuest Historical Newspapers p. A 1.Promises to Keep. Ginny Durrin, Durrin Productions, 1988. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=140&v=FzZJe8oTSu4
  14. ^ Boodman, Sandra G. “Mitch Snyder Weakens As protest Continues: Homeless Advocate Seeks Federal Action” The Washington Post (1974-Current); November 1, 1984 ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. 46.
  15. ^ Ibid.
  16. ^ Ibid.
  17. ^ Ibid.
  18. ^ Boodman, Sandra G. “Reagan Agrees to Refurbish Homeless Shelter: Snyder Ends Hunger Strike Snyder Ends 51-Day Hunger Strike As Agreement Is Reached on Shelter.” The Washington Post (1974-Current); November 05, 1984. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. A 1.
  19. ^ Ibid.
  20. ^ Ibid.
  21. ^ Brisbane, Arthur S. “Clash Threatens Shelter Project: Activist and Administration Dispute Terms of Agreement Shelter Plan in Jeopardy” The Washington Post (1974-Current); June 9, 1985. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. C 1.
     
    Boodman, Sandra G. “Reagan Agrees to Refurbish Homeless Shelter: Snyder Ends Hunger Strike Snyder Ends 51-Day Hunger Strike As Agreement Is Reached on Shelter.” The Washington Post (1974-Current); November 05, 1984. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. A 1.
  22. ^ Glass, Andrew. “George H.W. Bush signed Americans With Disabilities Act, July 26, 1990.” Politico; July 26, 2010. https://www.politico.com/story/2010/07/george-hw-bush-signed-americans-with-disabilities-act-july-26-1990-040205
  23. ^ Boodman, Sandra G. “Homeless Protest Shelter Closing: 200 Demonstrate at White House Against Administration Plan.” The Washington Post (1974-Current); June 28, 1985. ProQuest Historical Newsppaers. p. C 5.
  24. ^ Dale Van Atta and Jack Anderson. “Model Shelter or Work House?” The Washington Post (1974-Current); July 21, 1985. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. G 7.
  25. ^ Lou Cannon and Spencer Rich. “Heckler Will Leave Cabinet: HHS Secretary Agrees to Bemone Envoy to Ireland Heckler to Become Ambassador” The Washington Post (1974-Current); October 2, 1985. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. A 1.
     
    Pear, Robert. “Woman in the News; A Shrewd and Combative Envoy to Ireland: Margaret Mary O’Shaughnessy” The New York Times (1974-Current), October 2, 1985. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. B 5.
  26. ^ Lee Hockstader and John Mintz. “Reagan Blocks Evictions at Shelter” The Washington Post (1974-Current), December 29, 1985. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. A 1.
  27. ^ Brisbane, Arthur S. “Clash Threatens Shelter Project: Activist and Administration Dispute Terms of Agreement Shelter Plan in Jeopardy” The Washington Post (1974-Current); June 9, 1985. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. C 1.
  28. ^ Ibid.
  29. ^ Ibid.
  30. ^ Boodman, Sandra G. “House Panels Weigh Shelter Repairs: Snyder Says People Will Sleep in Parks if CCNV Facility Closes The Washington Post (1974-Current); August 2, 1985.  ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. B 3.
  31. ^ “U.S. Judge Rejects Suit on Shelter for Homeless”  Sun Sentinel, fort Lauderdale; August 20, 1985. p. 4 A.
  32. ^ Bredemeier, Kenneth. “Barry Bars City Role In Shelter: Says U.S. Must Find Alternative Housing Mayor Rejects City Role in Shelter Closing” The Washington Post (1974-Current); August 24, 1985.  ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. B 1.
  33. ^ Bruske, Ed. “Moving of Homeless to Anacostia Protested.” The Washington Post (1974-Current); October 1, 1985. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. D 1.
  34. ^ Brisbane, Arthur S. “Homeless Caught in Conflict: Some Balk at Move to New D.C. Shelter.” The Washington Post (1974-Current); November 13, 1985. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. A 1.
  35. ^ Brisbane, Arthur S. “Yielding No Quarter in Shelter Battle: Mitch Snyder Yields No Quarter In Shelter Battle.” The Washington Post (1974-Current); October 10, 1985. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. DC 1.
  36. ^ Promises to Keep. Ginny Durrin, Durrin Productions, 1988. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=140&v=FzZJe8oTSu4
  37. ^ Arthur S. Brisbane and Lyle V. Harris. “Homeless Demonstrate Against Move: About 50 Residents of CCNV Shelter Jeer Vans Offering Rides to New Facility.” The Washington Post (1974-Current); November 15, 1985. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. C 1.
  38. ^ Lee Hockstader and John Mintz. “Reagan Blocks Evictions at Shelter” The Washington Post (1974-Current), December 29, 1985. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. A 1. 
  39. ^ Promises to Keep. Ginny Durrin, Durrin Productions, 1988 https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=140&v=FzZJe8oTSu4 About being portrayed by Martin Sheen on screen, Mitch Snyder said; “I find it a little discomfiting to be a centerpiece in a film.”Dawson, Victoria. “Snyder’s Shelter & the ‘Samaritan’ Celebrities” The Washington Post (1974-Current); May 13, 1986. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. C 8.
  40. ^ Barker, Karlyn. “Refurbished D.C. Shelter For Homelss Opens.” Washington Post (1974-Current); February 20, 1987. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. D 1.
  41. ^ Promises to Keep. Ginny Durrin, Durrin Productions, 1988. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=140&v=FzZJe8oTSu4
  42. ^ Chris Spolar and Marcia Slacum Greene. “Mitch Snyder Found Hanged in CCNV Shelter; Notes Laments a Failed Love Relationships” The Washington Post (1974-Current); July 6, 1990. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. A 01.
  43. ^ Ibid.,Sanchez, Rene. “John Wilson Found Dead in apparent Suicide, Friends Cite Depression, Anxiety About Career” The Washington Post (1974-Current); May 20, 1993. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. p. A 01.