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Friday, July 6, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Death Of Mitch Snyder -- Advocate For Rights Of Homeless Gained Fame And Censure

AP: Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - In a grubby field jacket, with burning eyes, Mitch Snyder knew how to use his hunger as a weapon. He stared down a president and got him to turn over a decaying federal building for a homeless shelter.

That took a 51-day fast in 1984. CBS cameras were about to capture the showdown for ``60 Minutes.'' The presidential election was two days off. Ronald Reagan capitulated.

Snyder got the Navy to alter plans to name a new nuclear submarine Corpus Christi, after the city in Texas. He said no warship should bear the name ``the body of Christ,'' and the Navy changed it to the USS City of Corpus Christi. That took 11 days of self-deprivation.

It took 30 days without food to get the Department of Health and Human Services to release surplus food to the homeless.

But frail, scornful, confrontational Mitch Snyder had failures, too. He walked out of a marriage, leaving behind two small children, forcing his wife onto welfare. He said he couldn't stand his life of selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners and Maytag washers.

And 10 days ago, Snyder failed to keep the city of Washington from slashing funds for the homeless and gutting a law ensuring a night's shelter to the needy.

The law had been Snyder's triumph. He persuaded voters to enact it six years ago.

``This law was strangling us,'' said a city councilman, H.R. Crawford. ``We are broke.'' The amendment, which awaits Mayor Marion Barry's signature, would require homeless people to go though a screening process before being approved for shelter.

Yesterday Snyder was found hanged at the shelter he had worked so hard to preserve. A note found near his body contained ``suicidal tendencies,'' said police spokesman Reginald Smith.

Police sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the suicide note indicated Snyder was despondent over problems in his personal life.

``It's a terrible loss. He symbolized the movement,'' said Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. ``He gave voice to people who have had their voice taken away from them.''

Snyder, 46, was known everywhere. He described himself as liberator of the destitute. He was the hero of a TV movie, ``Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story.'' Its star, Martin Sheen, called him ``a saint.'' Snyder led congressmen and Hollywood celebrities to a night of sleeping on the street. He hobnobbed.

To others, however, he was a shameless self-promoter who loved his celebrity status.

Last spring, Carol Fennelly - Snyder's companion for 15 years - said she and Snyder would marry in September on the street in front of the 1,400-bed shelter that had been the focus of Snyder's work, the place that Snyder had forced from a reluctant Reagan.

The wedding ceremony was to have been performed by Daniel Berrigan, the anti-Vietnam War priest. Berrigan and his brother, Philip, introduced Snyder to activism in prison in Danbury, Conn.

The Berrigans were there for destroying draft records. Snyder was there for stealing a car out West. That, he once explained, had been back in his Jack Kerouac days of finding himself.

After prison, Snyder abandoned his old life for activism.

He became leader at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, turning it from a religious anti-war group into a noisy shelter for the roofless poor.

Snyder's first act of defiance in Washington occurred on Christmas Day 1973. He climbed the White House fence, apparently intent on confronting President Nixon.

His former wife, Ellen Daly, described him in an interview with The Washington Post in 1988 as driven, unhappy.

``I was married to him, I lived with him, I slept with him, I had children by him, and yet there's parts of him I really don't know,'' she said.

Residents and staff of the shelter reacted with shock, tears and frustration yesterday as the media descended on the block-long building on Capitol Hill.

``This death can't be motivating for the people who live here,'' said a neighbor of the shelter who asked not to be identified. ``How can they keep trying if he gives up?''

But some of the residents said they thought Snyder's death might have had a noble purpose. ``Maybe he did this as a message for people,'' said Jewell Tribble, who has lived at the shelter a year. ``Maybe his sacrifice will wake some people up.''

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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