As the homeless, office workers, children and the elderly came to pay final respects to Mitch Snyder yesterday, some reached out to touch his coffin, a pine box surrounded by red, yellow and white flower arrangements.
Just for a moment, one woman placed her face against the coffin. Others knelt before it in prayer. The candlelight vigil that would last through the night had begun.
Snyder, an advocate for the homeless who forced homelessness onto the national agenda, was found in his bedroom last week at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter at Second and D streets NW. He hanged himself.
Shortly before the vigil began in the basement of the shelter that Snyder fought to create, about 60 people waited in line outside in the sweltering heat. About 500 people filed past the coffin during the first 2 1/2 hours. Some wiped away tears or fought them back as they watched videotapes of a documentary of Snyder's advocacy work and a movie about his life, which played in the background.
In one scene, Snyder shouted, "I will have to claim the bodies," as he tried to convince members of Congress that the homeless would die in the streets without adequate shelters.
"This man took me off the street," said Audrey Dowdy, who was one of the first to file past the coffin. "If it wasn't for Mitch Snyder, I would be dead. I had slept in a car with rats for two years when he found me. Mitch was our heart and we loved him."
When Tom Gagliardo, a lawyer and Takoma Park resident, left the shelter, he struggled to calm down before he could speak about Snyder, who had helped him and others fight for affordable housing in Maryland.
"I just wanted to let the people know we loved him and respected him," Gagliardo said. "I was surprised at first about his death and then I was angry. But you go on, and with much more courage and vigor, because of him."
As the hours passed, the scene changed. A picture of Snyder and red roses were placed on top of the coffin. Twelve candles arranged on the floor cast a soft glow on the scene, and ushers took turns standing nearby.
Actor Martin Sheen, who played Snyder in a television movie of Snyder's life, said he was devastated by Snyder's death.
"There is a big hole in me," said Sheen, a close Snyder friend. "I don't know where we go from here or how we pull it back together."
Snyder had requested that Sheen and several others speak at his funeral, said Carol Fennelly, a CCNV member and Snyder's longtime companion.
The funeral will be held at noon today outside the CCNV shelter.
Jesse L. Jackson will preside. Snyder had requested that Dick Gregory, antiwar priest Phillip Berrigan and Karen Saunders, a homeless woman, also speak. Fennelly said she also invited Mayor Marion Barry.
A horse-drawn carriage is to carry Snyder's body to the District Building for a rally against the D.C. Council's decision to alter the city's overnight shelter law, which Snyder helped create.
His remains are to be cremated and the ashes placed in the CCNV office.
Meanwhile, D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) said yesterday that District police have been providing "upscaled" protection for him because he has received several phone threats blaming him for Snyder's death.
Crawford, who heads the D.C. Council's Human Services Committee, played a key role in weakening Initiative 17, which guaranteed shelter to every homeless person, and he frequently disagreed with Snyder over the District's policies on the homeless.