Members of SHARC break off into discussion groups
Reginald Black

For the past two years the grassroots group known as SHARC, for Shelter Housing and Respectful Change, has been holding town hall meetings to get homeless people involved in the fight to end homelessness in the District.

On April 29th, SHARC’s monthly town hall featured a film that offered some historical perspective and brought the struggle home.

The documentary Promises to Keep took the audience back to the 1980s, with the story of homeless advocate Mitch Snyder, the Community for Creative Non-Violence and the campaign to get federal funding to open a shelter in the old Federal City College building.

The shelter they managed to open evolved into the CCNV shelter, the very place where the town hall meeting was held.

The film produced by director Ginny Durrin traced the campaign, with its sit-ins, hunger strikes and demonstrations, all aimed at raising awareness about the homeless crisis.

And it offered a sense of Mitch Snyder’s leadership style, laying out the problem and explaining that people who were living on the streets were there due to a lack of needed services.

He had a way of laying the problem at the feet of his listeners. When you see someone on the street, he said, don’t pass them by.

An initial fast he organized to get action from government officials was supposed to only last four days. But nothing happened until members of CCNV had fasted for 51 days.

When Mitch Snyder was near death from the fast, CCNV managed to reach an agreement with the administration of President Ronald Reagan that allowed the group to take over the building for use as a shelter. But the struggles between CCNV and the federal government over funding for the decrepit shelter went on, marked by a sit-in at the White House gates, arrests and a court battle so intense it spilled into the streets.

A judge ruled the city could close the shelter, but housing for the homeless had to be found first. The fight continued until December of 1985 when US Marshals were sent to serve an eviction at CCNV. When residents refused to leave, President Reagan halted the eviction. The story took still another turn after Hollywood decided to get into the act by making a movie about those who were fighting for CCNV. Finally, four years after the initial battle with Reagan, the newly renovated CCNV shelter opened.

The showing of this movie to currently homeless people gathered at the CCNV shelter of today helped highlight the idea that homeless people can fight for their rights and win. And in another sense, it reminded viewers that the story of CCNV is not yet over.

The covenant between Snyder and the Reagan Administration is set to expire in July of 2016. Plans for what may happen to the place are being made, and homeless advocates say they want to be involved. As Robert Warren, of the People for Fairness Coalition said, “We’re really fighting for the right to housing.”