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Homeless Could Use More Reason To Give Thanks

By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page C01

The Federal City homeless shelter was a beehive of love on Thanksgiving day. More than 2,500 people were fed in the basement-turned-dining hall. All sorts of winter outfits were distributed from the shelter's clothing department, while medical attention was given to those who came to the infirmary.

A makeshift barbershop was set up in an alcove. Homeless men gathered there to help each other get spruced up for the special meals. A cold wind gusted outside. But inside, the atmosphere was comfortably warm and filled with the aroma of turkey dinners and fresh-baked cakes and pies.

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Thank the volunteers, to be sure. They came by the carloads from near and far. Suzy Fields and Kathleen Thompson, for instance, were in from Texas to help put up Christmas decorations at the White House but found time to serve dinner at the shelter, at Second and D streets NW.

"Coming here helps put life in perspective, and helping others who are less fortunate makes you appreciate what you have," Thompson said.

Thank also Mitch Snyder, the man for whom the stretch of Second Street in front of the shelter is named.

Twenty years ago, in November 1984, Snyder ended a 51-day hunger strike that pressured the Reagan administration into renovating -- instead of closing -- the ramshackle building. At the time, about 800 homeless people were living there in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

A $14 million renovation was completed in 1988. Four years later, Snyder committed suicide on the third floor, where he lived.

"I heard some rumors about him," a homeless man said while filling a bag with second helpings of turkey, ham, dressing, green beans, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, corn bread and biscuits. "I heard that he was a white guy who didn't mind hugging you even if you stank."

Close enough.

"Mitch was the kind of guy who'd walk up to a homeless person, hug him and say: 'I love you. Are you hungry? You want something to eat? You need a place to stay?' " recalled Melvin "Skip" Watkins, a graduate of Hampton University who is homeless and serves as interim executive director of the shelter. "The spirit of Mitch Snyder needs resurrecting."

Under D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), the number of homeless shelters near downtown continues to shrink. A protest that started last week and ended Friday over the latest closing, of the Randall School shelter in Southwest, suggests that such a resurrection may be underway.

"What's ironic is that many of the people in our shelter are veterans," Watkins said. "Money to help the homeless is being cut, while more and more money is being spent on waging war, which only creates more homelessness -- here and abroad."

There is a montage on a wall in the shelter at Second and D streets NW that includes a photograph of Snyder and this quote: "Our goal is simple: the creation of adequate, accessible space, offered in an atmosphere of reasonable dignity, for every man, woman and child who needs and wants to get off the streets."

Also pictured is Carol Fennelly, Snyder's longtime companion, who continued his work after his death.

"The problem is that homelessness is no longer shocking; it's become an acceptable part of our sitcom culture," Fennelly, who runs a program that helps incarcerated fathers stay in touch with their children, told me recently. "When you cease being shocked by homelessness, you cease being able to fix it."

During the feast Thursday, you could hear the grateful murmurs of mealtime prayers, followed by the smacking of lips and the sweet moans of taste buds coming alive.

A few miles away, on the grounds of Luther Place Memorial Church -- near Thomas Circle NW, where Snyder's ashes were spread -- a homeless woman was curled up under a blanket.

Asked if she was okay, the woman poked out her head and smiled: "Yes, I'm fine. Thank you."

If Snyder had his way, there'd be a place at the table where she, too, could say grace -- along with all the others who are hungry and in need of shelter from the cold.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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