Mitch Snyder, advocate for the homeless, left his wife and two sons in 1969. The date was incorrect in a story yesterday on his death. (Published 7/7/90)

Mitch Snyder, one of the nation's best-known champions of homeless people, was found dead yesterday in his bedroom at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter. Police said he had hanged himself.

Staff worker Marsh Ward and another CCNV member discovered Snyder's body about 2:30 p.m. on the third floor of the 1,200-person shelter at Second and D streets NW, staff members and police said. Snyder had last been seen Tuesday, police said.

A suicide note, handwritten on yellow legal paper and lamenting a failed love relationship with CCNV member Carol Fennelly, was also found.

Associates of Snyder said yesterday that he also had been disheartened by the rejection of Initiative 17, the emergency shelter law that had been recently weakened by the D.C. Council.

From the condition of the body, police believe Snyder, 46, died Tuesday night or Wednesday.

Snyder's death shocked the city, including politicians, advocates for the homeless and the hundreds of poor people who milled about the shelter yesterday afternoon. Many said the loss of Snyder, who nearly died in hunger strike after hunger strike on behalf of the homeless, would be devastating.

"Mitch was a lightning rod to the movement," said Robert Hayes, founder of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "It is a crippling setback. Mitch is not replaceable. His willingness to lay himself literally on the road was a commodity not found elsewhere."

Members of the shelter, including Rachel Frankel, a staff member who worked closely with Snyder and was answering phones at the shelter yesterday, said many people there knew that Snyder had been struggling emotionally for weeks. "I'm not surprised," Frankel said of his death.

Another CCNV member said the problems with Fennelly were "secondary" to his concern over Initiative 17. "If the initiative hadn't been defeated, I don't think he would have done it," the member said.

Fennelly, who had coordinated marches and hunger strikes with Snyder for 14 years, had taken a few days off, according to staff members. She returned within hours of the discovery of Snyder's body to announce his death on the steps of the shelter, which Snyder helped create more than six years ago by nearly starving himself to death.

"We are more committed now than ever to continue our struggle to serve homeless people, to advocate for their rights as human beings, and to continue our fight for overnight shelter and affordable housing," she said.

Fighting back tears and standing in the rain, Fennelly added: "Mitch always said good things happen with rain. He was wrong today." She declined to answer questions.

A source who had seen the suicide note said Snyder wrote that "he couldn't handle breaking up" with Fennelly. "He said that he wished she loved him as much as he loved her," the source said.

The same source said detectives found another letter in Snyder's room that indicated he had been despondent in March over the relationship and had contemplated suicide at the time.

CCNV members had spoken privately in the last few months about the problems Snyder had been experiencing. This spring, Snyder said he intended to take a leave of absence from CCNV to seek solace at a local Trappist monastery in Virginia. He later delayed that sabbatical.

Snyder said in an interview in April that he was "in love" with Fennelly. "If Carol and I don't get back together, one of us will have to leave," he said.

The next month, Fennelly and Snyder announced that they would be married in September. In June, however, Snyder said that he "didn't know when it would happen."

Snyder's former wife, Ellen Daly, contacted in New York yesterday, said Snyder had "seemed torn" over his relationship with Fennelly. "He was a little despondent over Carol but that would never push him to the edge, I don't think," Daly said. "I always thought he was so strong, and I guess I was wrong."

Snyder had suffered several setbacks in his homeless-advocacy role this year.

He was criticized this spring for refusing to allow census takers to enter the CCNV shelter to count the homeless. Snyder maintained that the census was so poorly planned that the homeless would be undercounted.

The most recent blow was the D.C. Council vote that amended Initiative 17, the city's overnight emergency shelter law, to restrict funds for the homeless. The law was passed by voter referendum in 1984 and had been one of the major achievements of Snyder and CCNV in the city.

Snyder had vowed to fight the council action, and two days ago said he was again delaying his leave of absence to continue the fight. He had scheduled a rally at the shelter for Saturday to generate support to maintain the law.

The added pressure on Snyder to defend the rights of the homeless, coming at a time when the public appears to be growing less sympathetic to their plight, may have played a role in his despair, politicians and other homeless advocates said.

Some expressed sorrow yesterday at Snyder's death. Others voiced frustration.

"I think America is hard on sensitive people, and I think Mitch was an extremely sensitive person who took his successes and failures personally," said D.C. Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2).

"Living and working with the homeless can take its toll," said the Rev. John Steinbruck, pastor of Luther Place Church and an advocate for the homeless who disagreed with many of Snyder's protest tactics. "It means to be immersed in a sea of despair and not to have concrete victories. I will cry in my own way. I also feel like I want to curse him."

Danny Hinton, a homeless man who spent yesterday begging for money on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, was confused about Snyder's death. "He couldn't have done it for me or for other homeless people," Hinton said. "Things will still happen {for the homeless} but not as fast."

D.C. Mayor Marion Barry visited the shelter yesterday after his trial on perjury and drug possession charges ended for the day.

"We did not always agree on the specifics of public policy," Barry said. "And yet, I never doubted the depth of his compassion and his commitment to safe and affordable housing."

Snyder captured national attention in 1984 -- and demonstrated what would become his well-recognized media savvy -- when he staged a 51-day hunger strike to force President Reagan to turn over the vacant federal building that later became home to CCNV.

With the presidential election two days away and the CBS-TV show "60 Minutes" preparing a segment on Snyder, Reagan agreed to turn the building into a model shelter. About $6 million in federal money was spent to renovate the building, which now houses 1,200 men and women. It also sponsors a drug rehabilitation program, health clinics and Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Snyder's personality and his tactics to get media attention for the homeless begame legendary.

Wearing his trademark Army-surplus jacket and faded jeans, Snyder held public funerals for unknown homeless people who died in the cold, slept on grates with movie stars such as Martin Sheen, scavenged through dumpsters with members of Congress and served Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to thousands of the poor on the Capitol lawn.

In 1986, a television movie about his life, called "Samaritan: the Mitch Snyder Story," was made with Martin Sheen playing the title role. Snyder maintained his Hollywood contacts, and last fall helped organize a march on Washington that drew dozens of stars.

Snyder's work for the homeless began after a troubled life. He left his wife and two sons in 1979. He later served time in prison for stealing a car. But he also met Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Catholic priests who protested the Vietnam War, during his imprisonment. They taught him about radical Christianity, the Bible and nonviolent protest.

He left prison and never resumed his former life. He moved to Washington in late 1973, joined CCNV and was arrested on Christmas Day for climbing over a White House fence to protest U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia.

CCNV and Snyder, however, quickly learned that the injustice they were fighting thrived in their own back yards. He took up the cause of homelessness long before it was a recognized problem.

Hayes, formerly of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said yesterday that he and Snyder were like a "tag team" in hearings before Congress.

Snyder was "the wild agitator," Hayes said, "and I was the establishment lawyer. We would say the same things . . . . I was always relieved that he was able to accept me as an ally, a guy who did not live in a shelter or sleep on the streets or wear an Army jacket."

Last fall, when Hayes decided to rearrange his career and practice corporate law as well as advocate for the homeless, he broke the news to a furious Snyder. "He did not think I had the right to do anything other than give 150 percent to the homeless. He said I should go to a monastery for a month instead of a law firm for recuperation. Balance was not a great value to Mitch."

Last summer, Snyder talked openly about his commitment to religion and his frustration with how CCNV, a onetime religious community, was attracting advocates with less spiritual commitment.

"I was attracted to the religious life and the deep and abiding belief in God that was here. Now the vast majority of people who live here aren't religious in any way. It's changing. And that makes it very difficult for me," he said.

"This is a guy who personally saved thousands of lives," said Hayes. "It is a great frustration that none of us were there when he needed us."

Staff writers Ruben Castaneda, Sari Horwitz, Patrice Gaines-Carter, R.H. Melton, Howard Kurtz, Kim Masters and Daniel Pink and special correspondent Steve Turnham contributed to this report.