"Cookie! Cookie!" Brenda Summers called from her streetcorner bench. "Mitch is dead."

"Oh my God."

"Up here. About two and a half hours ago," she went on. "He hung himself."

"What was the purpose of it?" asked the man, who is 31 and had just turned the corner onto Second Street NW, where the crowd was beginning to form outside the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter.

Summers, who was sharing a cigarette and beer from a plastic Pizza Hut cup with two others, paused.

"He was probably under a lot of pressure," she said. And then, almost as if she had just understood the message she had been delivering, Summers cried quietly.

"We worked together in all the marches, and I'm going to miss him very much, and I can't believe he's dead," she said.

By 3:30 p.m., everyone inside and outside the shelter had heard the news. Some got it from Summers, who sat on her bench and delivered the news cold and straight and with no embellishments.

A few cried. Some were angry. Others stood and simply expressed disbelief, over and over again. A man with a prosthesis on his leg went around shaking hands, until there were too many hands, and then he simply walked away.

Scores looked down from the building's 100-plus windows facing Second Street. They saw Police Chief Isaac Fulwood Jr. come in, and then later, Jesse L. Jackson, and still later Mayor Marion Barry.

And as the afternoon wore on, those who live in the building found themselves trying to explain what it all meant.

"I think I was here when the place opened," said Charlotte Dudley, 60, who like many others stood in a silent vigil behind the building. "I used to be out there at all the meetings. Out in the cold.

"He's a mighty fine man, that's all," she said. "That'll wrap it up. He was a mighty fine man."

The news of Snyder's suicide spread through the network of homeless people. One man heard about five blocks away from another homeless man and hurried to the scene. Karen McGill set out to tell the homeless across town, where she used to stay. Some, very few, were critical of Snyder.

About 4 p.m., a stranger approached Jerome Simmons on Lafayette Square and told him. Simmons, lying on a light blue blanket beneath a tree in the park, bolted upright.

"For real?" he asked. "Damn. I don't believe it."

Simmons, 31, said he spent three months at the CCNV shelter.

"He understood the homeless," said Simmons. "He looked out for us. I feel sorry he's gone. I don't know who we're going to look to now."

Over at Farragut Park, Haskell Carter, who was cutting cardboard with a pair of scissors, partly agreed with Phillips.

Carter, who said he has been homeless seven years, said he spent 1986 to 1988 at CCNV. He said he felt he had lost a friend. "He was very conscientious, very sincere," said Carter, surrounded by his belongings, contained in three plastic bags and a vinyl bag. "He was more than an advocate."

At the cluster of trailers for the homeless at 27th and I streets NW, Roger Hutchinson lay on his back, smoking a cigarette, his head against his backpack. Yes, he said, he'd heard the news. In fact, he said he knew Snyder very well.

Hutchinson, 26, said he served as a hall monitor for part of the two years he spent at CCNV. He left the shelter in March, and said he was constantly impressed by Snyder's ability to mobilize the homeless. He remembered going to court last year, when Snyder was battling to get trailers for the homeless open at Foggy Bottom. That day, Hutchinson recalled, 1,200 homeless people joined Snyder in court.

Outside CCNV, while the crowd waited for Jackson and Barry to come out, Brenda Bledsoe and Robin Sanders and Alva Bryant stood in the rain. They talked about Snyder and the comfort he gave them: stainless steel sinks, four private bathrooms for women, warmth in winter.

"Have you seen the place inside?" asked Bryant. "Beautiful. Beautiful. It's like not being homeless."

Sanders stood still. Bledsoe spoke about Snyder's insistance on dignity for the homeless: "Each one of us wants to work toward that end, being a spoke in that wheel . . . . "

And then Sanders said: "We don't know what to look forward to now."