Mitch Snyder is a zealot. It is characteristic of zealots that they go too far. They push issues to a point where they make the public and people in high places feel that they are being pressured -- as, in fact, they are. It is also indisputable that Mr. Snyder, through his determined hunger strike, took full advantage of the media and of the timing of the presidential election to press his demands. But having said all that, it must be acknowledged that Mitch Snyder has won an important victory for some desperately needy people who would otherwise have been ignored.
It would be nice to think that Mr. Snyder's dramatic gesture was not needed to draw federal and local attention to the plight of the growing number of homeless people in this and other cities. But there is simply no basis for thinking that. The homeless are not an attractive lot. Many are alcoholics. Others are mentally deranged. A few are dangerous. They don't vote or pay taxes, so there is no pressing reason for a politician to pay attention to them -- unless they have become a source of concern or annoyance to constituents who do vote and pay taxes.
Last January, pressure from advocates for the homeless did persuade the Reagan administration to turn over a dilapidated federal building to be run as a shelter by Mr. Snyder's Center for Creative Non-Violence. But neither the city nor the federal government provided funds to renovate or operate the facility. The shelter was scheduled to be closed in March, but at the last minute President Reagan kept it open. Since then the CCNV has been putting increasing pressure on the Department of Health and Human Services to come up with the several million dollars needed to make it habitable.
Now -- thanks, on the one hand, to Mr. Snyder's threats and obduracy and, on the other, to the untiring efforts of Harvey Vieth, chairman of the Federal Task Force on Food and Shelter, and Susan Baker, wife of the White House chief of staff, and other sympathetic administration officials -- the president has directed HHS to take whatever steps are needed to make the shelter a "model" facility.
No shelter for hundreds of street people is ever likely to meet most people's idea of a model. But federal support for the effort is well-justified. No locality can afford, by itself, to set a standard for housing the homeless lest it become a mecca for the dispossessed of every other community. Cities are already unfairly burdened in this respect. Mitch Snyder, many of whose positions we find unreasonable and whose tactics -- we will be frank -- generally strike us as a bad idea, has succeeded in this instance in reminding the country that the homeless ought to be a national concern.