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Homeless Advocate Mitch Snyder an Apparent Suicide

July 5, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Homeless advocate Mitch Snyder, who brought himself to the edge of death in many fasts to promote his cause, was found hanged Thursday at a homeless shelter with a note near his body.

Police issued a statement calling the death ″an apparent suicide by hanging.″ Spokesman Reginald Smith said a note containing ″suicidal references″ was found near Snyder’s body.

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

″It was a domestic situation, something to do with his girlfriend,″ one source said. ″The note indicates there were problems there.″

The sources said a second note was found in Snyder’s room, one written during the spring.

″It was along the same lines″ as the note found Thursday, one police source said. ″It talked about this possibility, sort of outlined what he might do.″

″We are greatly saddened by our loss,″ said Carol Fennelly, Snyder’s companion of 15 years and his partner in running the shelter. Fennelly said last spring that the couple planned to marry in September.

Fennelly did not return telephone calls for comment on the note.

Public Health Commissioner George Hamilton said an autopsy would be done Thursday night to determine the cause of death.

Snyder, 46, was one of the nation’s best-known advocates for the homeless. He was a model for a movie dramatizing his 1984 hunger strike for federal funds to house the homeless.

″What a shock, what a loss,″ said D.C. City Councilwoman Nadine Winter. ″What a loss to people all over the United States.″

Robert Hayes, chairman of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York and founder of the national Coalition for the Homeless, called Snyder ″a great ally.″

″Mitch was driven, he was no moderate on anything,″ Hayes said. ″He created, almost single-handedly, a movement. It’s just a great loss.″

Snyder, who had beaten the federal government in numerous confrontations over the years, lost a battle with the city government on June 26 when a city law guaranteeing overnight shelter to everyone was scaled back because of budget pressures.

″I think that’s what did it, I really do,″ said Bill Draughn, a shelter resident. ″It was a slap in his face.″

But Winter said Snyder was not especially despondent after the vote. ″He was tough,″ she said. ″We had talked about where we go from here.″

Shelter resident George Gilchrist said Snyder was under pressure from drug problems that had developed in the past year at the 1,400-bed shelter, a gray, three-story building several blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

″The man tried as best he could to help us out,″ he said of Snyder. ″It’s hard to stop something like crack.″

Rep. Henry Gonzalez, D-Texas, chairman of the House Banking Committee, which handles legislation on homeless issues, said Snyder’s ″zeal sometimes led him to extreme despondency at the seeming futility of the street people’s struggle.″

″Mitch Snyder was a rare blend of a man of action and an almost ethereal being,″ said Gonzalez.

″He was an untiring advocate for those least able to speak for themselves,″ said Mayor Marion Barry in a statement released by his office.

Fennelly said the Community for Creative Non-Violence, which runs the huge shelter, was ″in mourning.″

But she said that ″we are more committed now than ever to continue our struggle to advocate for homeless human beings and to continue our fight for overnight shelter and affordable housing.″

Snyder’s abrasive manner and extreme tactics - including frequent dramatic hunger strikes and a sleepout on grates outside the Capitol - won him allies ranging from politicians to Hollywood stars. Among them was Martin Sheen, who played him in the made-for-TV movie ″Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story.″

But his confrontational personality and approach also made him a controversial figure, even within his own organization.

One source close to CCNV, speaking on condition of anonymity, said ″there has been a lot of dissension within the group lately.″

Snyder was criticized last spring by other homeless advocates for trying to thwart the Census Bureau’s attempt to count homeless people for the first time.

Snyder refused to let Census enumerators into the CCNV shelter, saying, ″These people should be allowed to have their dignity and not be disturbed in the middle of the night to accommodate government grandstanding.″

Snyder announced in March that he was taking some time off to live in a Trappist monastery in Virginia.

″I’m a religious person, and from time to time it’s important to renew our relationship with God,″ Snyder told CCNV members. He said he wanted to take time for reflection, ″to do simple work like baking bread.″

Snyder grew up in New York City, and remembered cruising up the Bowery as a boy, his father ordering the car windows tightly closed ″to keep out the bums.″

He married and had two sons, working as a washing machine salesman, vacuum cleaner salesman and job counselor before quitting and walking out on his family in 1969.

He wound up in federal prison on an auto-theft charge. While serving time at Danbury, Conn., he got to know the radical priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, who were in prison for destroying draft records.

After leaving prison, Snyder joined an anti-war group in New York. He moved to Washington in 1973, where he found that ″homelessness became the domestic counterpart to what was happening in Southeast Asia.″

Snyder said in a 1989 interview with The Associated Press that the most important influences in his life were three uplifting Hollywood films: ″Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,″ ″It’s a Wonderful Life″ and ″A Christmas Carol.″

″They taught me the lessons of my life: that good will always overcome evil, and that the most insignificant person can make a difference, provided what he’s doing is right.″

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