As District housing advocates reflected yesterday on the death of Mitch Snyder, the homeless movement's best-known crusader, they not only mourned his loss but also pictured themselves emerging from Snyder's shadow to draw attention to often overlooked approaches to solving the city's homeless crisis.
Snyder, who committed suicide this week by hanging himself at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter, was a symbol for the emergency shelter movement. He lived with the homeless and went to battle for them in the streets and in the glare of television camera lights.
Without Snyder, other advocates predicted that future struggles on behalf of the homeless will escalate in lobbying sessions with politicians at the District Building and in newly formed coalitions that will solicit the help of the business community and neighborhoods. The new emphasis, they said, will be on permanently eliminating homelessness.
"Mitch's death is a sad thing and we will miss him," said Jim Dickerson, head of Manna Inc., a nonprofit housing development group. "Mitch had a place and a role to play, but perhaps his absence will give room and space for others to get some attention. People are tired of the problem and they are ready for solutions. The problem is that there is not enough affordable housing."
Snyder was found dead in his bedroom at the CCNV shelter about 2:30 p.m. Thursday. A preliminary death certificate issued yesterday by the D.C. Medical Examiner's Office attributed Snyder's death to asphyxia, caused by hanging, and indicated that Snyder had been dead for more than 24 hours when his body was discovered, said D.C. Public Health Commissioner Georges C. Benjamin. There were no signs of foul play, Benjamin said.
Snyder hanged himself with an electrical cord and left a suicide note about a failed love relationship with CCNV member Carol Fennelly, according to sources. The note, one source said, referred to money that Snyder was leaving for Fennelly in his pocket and a flower pot. Police found $8,000 in Snyder's bedroom.
Others have said that Snyder was depressed about recent setbacks in connection with his work on behalf of the homeless.
Yesterday was filled with gestures, large and small, from people who wanted to remember Snyder.
At 8:30 a.m., a crowd of about 400 gathered at Bible Way Church for a memorial service at which Jesse L. Jackson spoke of Snyder's commitment to the poor. After the ceremony, a group of nine CCNV residents asked D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) to rename the CCNV shelter, at Second and D streets NW, for Snyder, and to find an apartment building to provide transitional housing for shelter residents. Jarvis said she plans to search for transitional housing.
Meanwhile, by late afternoon, council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) had introduced and obtained six co-sponsors for a bill to rename the CCNV shelter the "Mitch Snyder Memorial Shelter."
At the 1,200-bed shelter, staff members and residents went quietly about their work while hundreds of people, including former residents who lived there five to six years ago, called to ask if there was anything they could have done.
Sister Carol Ann Votruba, clinical director for the shelter's medical clinic, walked from one end of the building to the other to see how things were going. "It was like walking through a mausoleum," she said, adding that Fennelly was "doing pretty well, considering the circumstances."
CCNV announced that a candlelight vigil for Snyder will begin at 3 p.m. Monday at the shelter and continue through the night. At noon Tuesday, Jackson will preside over the funeral to be held outside the shelter.
"Following the service a horse-drawn carriage carrying Mitch's body will lead mourners on a march to the District Building where Mitch was waging his last battle on behalf of the homeless to save the D.C. Right to Overnight Shelter Law," the CCNV statement said.
Arguing that the shelter law had placed a strain on city resources, the D.C. Council amended the law, known as Initiative 17, to restrict city spending for shelters and to limit the number of nights that individuals and homeless families can stay in shelters. Snyder's death, some say, may become a rallying cry to reverse the council action.
Today a meeting, which Snyder had arranged before his death, will be held at the CCNV shelter to generate support for placing a referendum on the November ballot to repeal the council's amendment.
D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), the chief sponsor of the amendment, said yesterday, "The council did what it had to do and I stand by my decision." He said that Snyder's death creates a great void in the homeless movement but that he hoped that people would continue Snyder's commitment with an emphasis on finding permanent solutions.
Some advocates of the homeless said that such a move had begun before Snyder's death and is likely to gather steam.
Sue Marshall, executive director for Community Partners for the Prevention of Homelessness, a group headed by developer Oliver T. Carr Jr., said that many who want to end the homeless crisis are convinced that Initiative 17 forced the city to spend millions of dollars on overnight shelters. She said her group is trying to complement the city's efforts by focusing on preventive efforts that will provide jobs and educational training for adults and activities for children.
"We are looking for ways to build bridges between the corporate community, foundations and people in neighborhoods," said Marshall, adding that the group has raised $200,000 for its efforts.
Dickerson, of Manna Inc., said he has already seen signs of a shifting emphasis as shelter and housing providers begin to form coalitions.
"We have institutionalized homelessness and gotten locked into a mode of managing poverty," Dickerson said. "We need to break free. The future, if we keep our wits about us and not self-destruct, is to continue to work with the city government and to take some critical stands on policy issues. We've got to hold up a vision that works."
Snyder was also a spokesman for the homeless on the national level. Although many insist that he can never be replaced in terms of his ability to generate massive support for the movement, they say his work has already produced efforts that will guarantee that the movement will survive without him.
"Since homelessness has spread, we have people working on it in every state, and that is not going to go away," said Joan Alker, assistant director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "The homeless are also getting more active in working on their own behalf."
Staff writer Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.