Mitch Snyder says the government has reneged on its agreement to build a model shelter for the homeless. The government says "Hollywood" Snyder is more interested in self-promotion than housing the destitute.
The war of words threatens to unravel an agreement reached at a dramatic moment last November when Snyder, an advocate for the homeless and a leader of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, was near death after 51 days of fasting.
President Reagan had just acceded to Snyder's demand that the government rehabilitate the decaying federally owned building at 425 Second St. NW, which the CCNV had been using as a shelter for the homeless.
Snyder, sipping broth after being carried from his bed at the group's communal house at 1345 Euclid St. NW, had said, "I'm deeply grateful to God for letting me live to see this, and I'm grateful to the president."
Now the two sides are exchanging letters and barbed criticisms. Renovation of the building, scheduled to be completed by this coming winter, has not begun.
The crux of the dispute is a definition for "model physical shelter," which U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret M. Heckler promised in a statement on Nov. 4, 1984. In a meeting May 27 on the eve of the renovation start-up, the government and Snyder discovered that they had different interpretations of "model physical shelter."
An angry Snyder stormed out of the meeting and announced he would not discharge several hundred residents from the shelter, effectively blocking work. Later, Snyder said the government had presented no detailed plans.
Conrad Levenson, a New York architect who worked with the CCNV after the fast to create a design for the facility, said the meeting revealed that the government's intentions, which would be carried out by the General Services Administration, would duplicate the failings of other shelters elsewhere and would not provide a "model."
"What we have here for the moment is the application by the federal government of a universally condemned model which exists in other places in the country," he said. "And that is the warehousing of homeless people in vast anonymous places, gymnasiums, armories, etc., which everyone agrees is inappropriate."
Snyder's group wants private cubicles for the residents, new windows, a new roof and a new kitchen. Snyder and Levenson contend that the government plans, which call for open dormitories and repairs to the roof and windows, are merely a patch-up job that would result in costly future maintenance and warehousing of residents.
C. McClain Haddow, HHS chief of staff, counters that the government's renovation plan is consistent with its agreement and that Snyder now is grabbing for more.
"He's media-mongering, just looking for attention," Haddow added. "We call him 'Hollywood Mitch' because all he really cares about is the attention he gets."
The Hollywood reference stems from a deal Snyder signed with a Hollywood producer for a television film about his fast and the plight of the homeless. Snyder said the CCNV has received $50,000 for the deal so far and plowed the money into its shelter operation. If the film is produced and shown on television, CCNV would get another $100,000 for the shelter, he said.
Haddow said the GSA does have plans and has offered to show them to Snyder in a meeting tomorrow. "He refuses to look at the plans unless they include everything he wants . . . . We have called his bluff."
Snyder, meanwhile, insists on seeing the plans before he meets with the GSA. "We have gotten a call from GSA informing us that there were in fact plans, which have been in existence for a couple of weeks," he said Friday. "They wanted to get together to talk about them on Monday. We said, 'Sorry . . . . We are not going to sit down until we get something in hand.' "
Further clouding the issue is the matter of cost. Levenson's plan for a model shelter, which was rejected by the administration, would cost $10 million according to a GSA estimate -- more than twice what Haddow said the government is willing to spend. Haddow said Levenson estimated in March 1984 that it would cost $5 million to renovate the shelter. He said the government plans were "all predicated on Levenson's estimate." Levenson said his figure was based on a quick tour of the structure and represented the cost for a "minimum level of physical repairs" -- not a design for the model shelter the government promised eight months later.