On July 5, 1990, I was holding together a homeless protest encampment at Boston's Federal Building when I got the news that Mitch Snyder had hung himself in his CCNV shelter.
Just six years earlier, in 1984, I'd met Snyder for the first time. About ten of us drove a van from Amherst, MA to Washington, DC to get arrested during the culmination of CCNV's Harvest of Shame campaign. Snyder took his 51-day fast right to the brink and, with the help of people like us who had been mobilized to put our bodies on the line, won the building that would become the massive CCNV shelter.
Our affinity group refused to post bail for ourselves and spent three days in DC Central Cell Block on a diet of baloney sandwiches, donuts, and coffee before a judge dismissed our charges.
After college, I found my way into homeless activism through various encampments and other direct action style protests. By 1990, I'd walked across Massachusetts in a homeless march, organized buses to two Housing Now! mobilizations, and participated in a street brawl with Boston cops during a CCNV-inspired "Tear Down The Boards" housing takeover. I'd mastered the logistics of street feeds, makeshift encampments, and security.
Mitch Snyder, for all his P.T. Barnum qualities, knew how to get people to put their bodies on the line for a cause that mattered. He understood the dynamics of movement building. While Snyder was often accused of being too simplistic, in his hands this was a virtue. Homelessness wasn't a specialized social services issue. It was an unacceptable moral travesty of radical inequality in a land of plenty. His was an accessible language of outrage that asked for your commitment.
I remember that 4th of July weekend encampment for many things. Robert, a cross-dressing homeless Vietnam vet, insisted on doing security. I was sure he was going to get his ass kicked. As it turned out, nobody cared. Robert had a gentle air of authority, even while wearing hot pants and a halter.
There was also a hard drinking wheelchair-bound Marxist who lived in poverty about a block away and kept dropping in. He had a way of talking in camp meetings that fired people up. I thought he might develop into a leader but he turned out to be too far gone. There were a few good hours of vodka equilibrium — when he found his optimal balance between the shakes and oblivion — but his window of effectiveness was just too narrow.
But mostly, I remember that camp and the news of Mitch's suicide as the symbolic end of an era. The 1989 Housing Now! movement had failed to cohere and maintain momentum, and had dissolved into infighting among national groups over leadership and tactics. Meanwhile, homelessness was still growing, and the phrase "compassion fatigue" started to be heard for the first time.
There was a moment when the movement against homelessness could have combined direct services sophistication with direct action militancy, but instead, our moral outrage turned into complacency. As a movement, we lost our nerve.
A week or two after his death, we held a memorial across the street from the Boston Common at Park Street Church. There were all the predictable eulogies and reminiscences of poignant or revealing moments. Then my friend Lisa Kuneman — a line-worker at Pine Street Inn and an activist with our Homes not Bombs group — walked up to the pulpit.
She broke down as she talked about how much we needed Mitch, and how angry she was that he’d done something so selfish. Hers is the only speech I remember. She was right. She still is.
But I'm not angry at Mitch Snyder anymore. I'm mad at the rest of us.
Tonight I see that the Port Authority is hell bent on demolishing 162 apartments for low-income families in Burien, thus canceling out much of the progress that's been made in recent years to increase affordable housing stock in King County. It's the latest in a long line of outrages.
I wonder what Mitch would do?