SHORTLY BEFORE Mitch Snyder's death, he was invited to appear on a local talk show to discuss the District's decision to roll back Initiative 17, the voter-approved right-to-shelter law. But Snyder's booking was canceled after the show's host complained that Snyder and his ideas were passe', boring.

Episodes like that represent the great fear of homeless activists as their movement enters the 1990s. While they struggle to come to terms with a seemingly intractable problem, they are battling growing indifference to their cause. Losing a visible spokesman has crystallized these concerns at just the time of year when the public least considers the needs of homeless people -- summertime.

Nearly everyone who worked with Snyder had mixed opinions about his personality and tactics. But most of the homeless advocates I met around the country this spring while reporting on local solutions to homelessness felt that his fasts and angry pronouncements made their lower-profile efforts more acceptable to the public.

"Whether it's been with the civil rights movement or the women's rights movement, a strong, confrontational, politically-minded individual will open the doors to others who the powers-that-be seem to think they can work with," says Jonathan Zimmer, the executive director of Pittsburgh's ACTION Housing Inc.

Zimmer is a prime example of an organizer who has watched a number of homeless programs flourish in Snyder's long shadow -- with little direct national input. In Pittsburgh, the downtown business community has formed partnerships with churches and neighborhood groups to combat a homeless problem brought on by the collapse of the once-dominant steel industry.

The evolving homeless movement was made up of an odd hodgepodge of government officials, business leaders and leftover 1960s activists. And perhaps "movement" is too strong a term for a mostly ad hoc effort that tried to respond to local emergencies without the benefit of political support. Attorney Maria Foscarinis remembers that when she first came to Washington to lobby for the National Coalition for the Homeless in 1985, she was often dismissed bluntly from Capitol Hill offices. "I was often told, 'We would like to help, but the homeless don't vote,' " she said recently.

Indeed, many of the ideas that worked had a distinct local flavor, and the 1987 passage of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act represented the national effort's chief peak. Since then, public concern has remained high, and polls have repeatedly shown that taxpayers are willing to pay for homeless assistance programs.

Recently, however, that conviction has begun to erode. In several widely-noted instances -- in New York, Atlanta, San Francisco and Washington -- government officials and private citizens have expressed irritation at the presence of homeless people in public places.

Part of the difficulty in selling homelessness as a national issue is that the federal government was slow to react when the first signs of the problem began showing up on the nation's streets in the early 1980s. The three-year-old McKinney Act was not fully funded until this year, and Congress has turned aside broader initiatives.

Still, cities had been awakened to the homeless phenomenon during harsh winters that took lives on urban streets. In rural areas, the issue assumed new dimensions as farm foreclosures began to drive entire families from their homes.

But much time has been spent squabbling over the numbers of the homeless. Activists like Snyder put the tally at about 3 million, a number he would never concede was probably inflated. The Reagan administration chose to low-ball the problem, pegging it at 250,000 at most. While responsible estimates have settled in the 600,000-to-1-million range, this year's hotly-debated U.S. Census survey is likely to confuse the matter even further.

The endless debate over numbers has not defined the direction of the movement any more effectively than Snyder's presence did. Anita Beatty, a director of the Georgia Task Force for the Homeless who has watched public support for her cause erode in Atlanta, said she doubts that a real national movement has ever existed -- with or without Snyder.

"He was visible to you all in Washington, because he had an immediate cause -- the {D Street} shelter," said Beatty, who serves on the board of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "But when it came to standing up and declaring himself as the head of the national movement, he didn't."

Efforts in cities, states and rural areas to define and address homelessness still continue, but are hampered by the lack of a consistent, national drive to force the debate within the administration and Congress. "Without a leader it's difficult," said Beatty, who sees a continuation of local efforts even without the single driving national force. "It's still a movement. It's healthy and alive, but it's struggling."

The signs of life can be found in communities that have developed their own partial success stories. In Portland, San Diego and Los Angeles, for instance, local officials have renovated and opened single room occupancy hotels that made cheap, utilitarian housing available for individuals -- the largest component of homeless people. This year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development mimicked such local efforts by making Federal Housing Administration insurance available for SRO development for the first time.

Pittsburgh's Action Housing Inc. has raised corporate money and played godfather to a network of programs that operate shelters, runs food and job banks and opened a massive downtown SRO hotel on the site of a former YMCA. City, county and private sector officials there are happy to get federal money but don't rely on it. They scoff at the notion that shelter can be legislated by popular referendum.

In Los Angeles, Andy Raubeson has rescued a dozen seedy flophouses, using city funds and a dollop of McKinney Act money to renovate the buildings into modern SRO hotels -- some with adjoining landscaped and fenced-in parks -- that stand out along skid row like shiny ribbons.

Are these achievements the result of a movement led by one man? "There is a need for that cutting-edge kind of voice," said Raubeson. But ultimately, he adds, successful anti-homelessness strategies -- like successful politics -- are local."

In the end, homelessness, like other thorny national issues, cannot rely entirely on federal solutions. Even those who have the most interest in forcing congressional action and White House approval concede that point.

"The local activism remains and is even more pronounced than ever before," said Maria Foscarinis, now director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, "The danger comes in concluding that the national activity is dead or was never necessary."

Foscarinis points to the passage of the McKinney Act as proof that, with pressure, the federal government can respond. But if activists plan to continue lobbying Congress they now emphasize local activities -- teach-ins, marches and rallies.

"We're going in both directions," said Peter P. Smith of New York's Partnership for the Homeless, Inc. "In order to get the kind of support you need in Congress, you have to start at the local level."

This local emphasis may be the homeless movement's salvation. The Bush administration, while more supportive than its predecessor, has shown no inclination to provide significant new dollars. HUD officials resist any notion that the root cause of homelessness is a national housing crisis, as activists contend.

And activists and government officials alike agree that the homelessness movement must move beyond the emergency responses found in barracks-like shelters and food programs. For the federal government, that means linking shelter with social services and emphasizing the needs of the most dysfunctional among the homeless -- substance abusers and the mentally ill. For activists and local officials in search of public support, it means emphasizing that the plight of homeless families can only be addressed by actually providing housing.

Because both sides are, to some degree, correct, the debate about the future of the homelessness movement runs the risk of crippling any effort to develop a cohesive, national approach. Helen Seitz, who runs an innovative, much imitated New Jersey state homelessness prevention program (it pays overdue mortgages and rents to prevent eviction), sees burnout everywhere she turns.

"The response to the problem has become bureaucratized," she said. Some of the best news she's had all year came recently when the local Junior League offered to raise $100,000 for the prevention program. The Junior League. Not the local homeless coalition. Not the state government. Not HUD.

But such occasional largesse is no real answer -- not even the beginning of an answer. Because, ultimately, it will always be government's role to resolve our most dramatic social inequities -- whether in education spending, fair employment or housing.

"The public is fed up with emergency relief," said Foscarinis. "The public is fed up with having to give up quarters every day on street corners. The public is forced to bear the brunt of the lack of government solutions."

Gwen Ifill is a Washington Post reporter.