WHILE MITCH Snyder was alive, there was always great debate about his methods, but in death the focus shifts to his accomplishments. Here and nationally, the man inspired, shamed and otherwise drove innumerable people into helping the homeless whether they wanted to or not. He could be an insistent and persuasive advocate, an infuriating and self-aggrandizing gadfly and a self-punishing and guilt-inflicting zealot. In all those roles, not least through his repeated fasts, he was unquestionably the person who, more than anyone else in this city, brought attention to the plight of those with no home of their own. "I am a very selfish, very controlling, pigheaded person with a fanatical belief," Mr. Snyder once said. "I ain't Mother Teresa."
In 1984 the squalid and dilapidated Second Street structure he had made into Washington's largest homeless shelter was on the way to being closed. To obtain more federal funds, this difficult and exasperating man took on President Reagan with a long fast, and it was the president who, two days before his reelection day, made the move that eventually brought millions of federal dollars to turn the facility into a supposedly model shelter. In that same year, Mr. Snyder persuaded Washington voters to pass, by landslide numbers, an initiative that compelled the District government to offer shelter to anyone who needed it, regardless of cost.
Mr. Snyder was a relentless media manipulator whose Community for Creative Non-Violence persuaded congressional legislators and movie stars to spend a night sleeping on the streets of Washington. Later Congress passed the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, which authorized more than $1 billion to the nation's homeless during a two-year period. By 1987 the District government was paying for 724,289 shelter nights a year, more than three times the amount of 1984.
By the time of his unfortunate and untimely death this week, by suicide, Mr. Snyder's influence had waned, his leadership and his always controversial tactics had been challenged, and the man who had beaten down the nation's highest elected official could not even persuade the local D.C. Council to preserve intact the city's right-to-shelter law. But Mitch Snyder forced many of his fellow citizens to recognize not simply the elemental needs but the very existence of his otherwise unrepresented constituency. He made it harder literally and figuratively to brush past broken and abandoned people on the streets. The city and the society as a whole are a long way from ensuring shelter, rescue and dignity for the homeless. But they are closer than they were: Mitch Snyder did far more than his part.