Witness to History: Activists redefined America’s Response to Homelessness
Sitting in an office in an old church near Dupont Circle on a recent morning, Jerry Jones and Michael Stoops looked over the stack of curling photographs; images of the dramatic protests that helped alert the world to America’s homeless crisis.
At the center of most the pictures was the enigmatic Mitch Snyder. As Jones, Stoops and other members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence fasted, prayed and took over federal buildings to bring attention to America’s homeless crisis, Snyder was there, leading and inspiring them.
Decades have passed. Jones and Stoops have gone on with their homeless advocacy, now at the National Coalition for the Homeless. Snyder is gone. But his life left a lasting imprint upon his old friends, and the anti-poverty movement as a whole.
And the crumbling CCNV shelter he risked his life to open remains a monument to his work.
Snyder mounted a series of desperate fasts in order to get the administration of President Ronald Reagan to turn over the huge abandoned federal college building and to provide the millions of dollars needed to make the sprawling, decrepit place habitable.
But his last fast nearly finished him. As Snyder hovered near death, he was assured by US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler that President Reagan had pledged to fund the shelter renovations. Then Snyder was taken to the hospital by ambulance. That was in November, 1984.
Jones: “There was a series of fasts, three fasts, but Mitch Snyder fasted for 52 days culminating around the election session so it got nationally a lot of attention. It was actually an amazing story. Ronald Reagan, not at all sympathetic to poor people, capitulated and agreed to give the shelter to CCNV.”
Stoops: “When Mitch did the 52 day fast, one of the go-betweens between CCNV and the Reagan administration was none other than Susan Baker, who was the wife of the former Secretary of State James Baker. She was on our side and she was going back and forth.”
The original plan, Jones said, was for the activists of CCNV to win the building from the federal government and then turn it over to a religious group to run as a shelter. But eventually, it became clear that the CCNV itself would need to run the huge and sprawling shelter and feed its more than 1,000 residents.
Jones: “None of us were salaried, our clothes were from the clothing room, the food was from donations like everyone else in the building. So it was a very diverse, eclectic community and it became up to when Mitch died, that was the group of people that were operating the shelter.”
And beyond running the shelter, CCNV leaders went on fighting for change on a local and national level. They found allies in DC voters as well as celebrities and lawmakers.
In 1984, Washington DC voters passed Initiative 17, establishing a right to shelter in the District, the nation’s first statutory right-to-shelter law.
In February of 1987, the refurbished CCNV shelter opened and was hailed as the nation’s largest shelter and a model for cities across the country.
Jones: “It took about $14.5 million dollars to renovate the building. When I moved in, when the rest of the community moved in…it was a very modern, immaculate facility.”
But activists kept working.
Stoops: “In March of 1987 we organized the Great American Sleep-Out. We had 13 members of Congress sleep outside for the night including (Connecticut Congressman) Stewart McKinney, the Republican who died shortly thereafter. We had (actor) Dennis Quaid, we had (then-D.C. Mayor) Marion Barry and one of his girlfriends. We had Congressman Joe Kennedy and his first wife Sarah, came and slept outside. And I always get to tell people that I slept with 13 members of Congress and a bunch of celebrities all during the same night. So that got a ton of media coverage.”
Later in 1987, Congress passed, and President Reagan signed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act,a federal law providing federal funds for shelter programs nationwide.
Homeless activists wanted more. In the fall of 1989, Snyder and other organizers from the coalition Housing Now! mounted what was billed as the largest demonstration ever on behalf of the nation’s estimated 3-million plus homeless people. Rock stars including Stevie Wonder and the band Jefferson Airplane played. Civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King spoke. Movie stars marched on the Capitol along with homeless people.
But in early July, 1990, Snyder took his own life. There were many reasons that may have contributed to the desperation of the act, Jones and Stoops said. Alliances among homeless activists were fracturing. The District had just repealed Initiative 17. It would take another hard fight to get the right-to-shelter law reinstated. There were personal problems as well.
Jones: “Well Mitch was clinically depressed in his last year. People who were close to him just didn’t pick up on it….
Stoops: “ I was shocked when I got the call from Robert Hayes asking if I had heard what had happened to Mitch. And I never would have guessed that Mitch would have taken his own life, because I thought he was so committed to the movement that he would see the value of him being around for year after year. I always wonder if Mitch was alive today would he be an outcast, would he be as prominent as he was in the 1980’s, he would probably be somewhere in between.”
After Snyder’s death Carol Fennelly went on running the shelter for four more years. When she was replaced with a new director in 1994, many saw her departure as the end of an era for CCNV: a shift away from the radical idealism that created the shelter toward the day-to-day efforts of helping homeless individuals move on with their lives. Fennelly turned her talents to founding a new nonprofit called Hope House, where she has been for the past 15 years. The organization is dedicated to helping the families of prisoners maintain bonds with loved ones, through visits, summer camps and reading projects. In June, she was honored at the White House with a Champion of Change Award. Taking a few minutes to reflect back on her early days with CCNV in a telephone interview Fennelly said she believes those vanished times were unique and that some of the power of the movement died with Snyder. She said she did not think the chemistry of those days can be easily replicated.
Fennelly: ”First, Mitch is gone. And Mitch was a real visionary and collectively I think we had wonderfully creative energy at CCNV, and that energy that birthed the movement in many ways is gone. People may hold a few banners and signs and maybe get arrested from time to time, but that creative energy just isn’t there. I think it was just a magic time. We had Ronald Reagan as president cutting programs; we had an increase in homelessness.
“There were coalitions of interesting people and interesting times, that converged to create very creative action and vision and change…There was a lot of courage. There was altruism at its best. There was a willingness to put everything on the line. People think that social change should happen next week. And the only way to create change is by putting everything on the table, the opposition has everything; all the money, all the power. You need to be willing to make those kinds of sacrifices.”
In some ways, Fennelly said she sees hope in today’s wider awareness of homelessness. And while the Occupy movement that grew out of the recession did not start out to be about homelessness, it ended up addressing it.
Fennelly: “Everybody has walks for the homeless now, nobody had those in 1976. And we still do those kinds of things. In terms of the Occupy movement, that was more focused on middle America, the 98 percent of America that isn’t homeless. It turned into something more about poverty, but it didn’t start out that way.”
Fennelly also said she believes the city needs to make sure the CCNV shelter is saved. And she warned advocates, including shelter residents to literally hold their ground.
Fennelly: “Obviously there’s a need for it or people would be out on the streets. I mean if the place wasn’t full every night there wouldn’t be a need for it. So I think they need to step up and do the right thing and do whatever repairs need to be done, CCNV needs to hold onto that parking lot. Don’t give up the parking lot!”
See more on our CCNV timeline.