You'd have to see how Mitch Snyder lived -- among the homeless -- to understand a possible reason why he took his own life last week.

You'd have to see how he suffered for those whom this society has relegated to subhuman status, how he sacrificed to feed those who compete with stray dogs and cats for scraps.

And you'd have to see the look on Snyder's face at the end of the day, when hundreds more were left locked out of the shelter, to understand the profound pain that he felt.

I visited the homeless shelter run by the Community for Creative Non-Violence at Second and D streets NW not long after it officially opened in 1986, and made arrangements with Snyder to spend a night there.

I split long before dawn.

That place was an insane asylum, with people fighting and vomiting and urinating on themselves. After 15 years of trying to help such people, almost anyone would be depressed.

There was one homeless man who had wandered the streets of the city wearing only dirt-packed drawers and a blanket for a cape. He would crawl into the huge green garbage bin alongside the Popeye's restaurant on 14th Street NW and just lie there as he ate from bags of fly-infested waste.

The man had been picked up and taken to the shelter along with 1,200 more downtrodden souls, given a bath, clean clothes and food. Snyder pointed him out as proof of the rejuvenating quality of the human spirit. But a few weeks later the man was back on the streets, climbing in and out of garbage bins.

There were people at the shelter for whom life had dealt one series of bad hands after another. Their stories of family disaster, personal tragedy and just plain bad luck made for a tremendous burden on the ear as well as the heart.

Spouses had died just as parents got sick. Sisters and brothers had been imprisoned, and now their children were homeless. Evictions had been carried out after a job fell through. Fires, crimes, automobile accidents, drugs, alcohol, mental illness and disease all added to the misery.

Into this mix of despondency and despair came Mitch Snyder, a caricature of a Christ figure, feeding the hungry with his loaves of bread and soup, offering shelter from the storm.

He reminded me of some 1960s-era hashish salesman, and I found it hard to believe that he could go 62 days without food and still be coherent. Nevertheless, his credibility would soar when I'd see him hug some lice-infested homeless man or gently wipe the tar and dirt from the eyes of a withered old bag lady.

The Rev. John Steinbruck, of Luther Place Memorial Church, put it mildly when he said he felt sorry for Snyder, but at the same time felt like cursing him for committing suicide.

Here was the leader of the Community for Creative Non-Violence employing uncreative violence to end his life after advocating the sanctity of all life.

Before hanging himself, Snyder had locked the outside door to his bedroom at the homeless shelter, then unlocked the inside door to Carol Fennelly's adjoining bedroom. He was reportedly despondent over a failed relationship with Fennelly, and had planned for her to find him dangling at the end of an electrical cord.

Mercifully, someone else discovered his body. So in death, as in life, things had not worked out according to Snyder's schemes.

He had planned on entering a monastery to renew his faith in God, but decided instead to stay in Washington and to politic for restoration of city legislation that would guarantee shelter to the homeless.

Sometimes I wonder whether Snyder had become so caught up in controlling and manipulating that he blinded himself to the good that he was doing.

Had he lived, he would have been most pleased, no doubt, to learn that Links Inc., an influential organization of African American women, had recently decided to donate to the homeless its funds previously earmarked for social affairs.

This signaled an important shift in the group's social consciousness, and may well be emulated by other enlightened service organizations that operate in the city.

Snyder did not seem to realize that, despite some legislative setbacks and individual failures, the battle to help the homeless was still being valiantly waged.

He seemed preoccupied with failure. But if he did take his own life because he felt unloved and unappreciated, it may be helpful for the rest of us to consider how the homeless themselves must feel -- and, like the Links, join the fight to do something about it.