Oddly enough, my first experience with homelessness (back in 1982) happened to correspond with an unexpected surge in the national homeless population. I remember seeing news articles in the local paper discussing this sudden increase in homelessness, and reports of its continued growth through the 80s. This growth was happening in cities all over the country. Attention shifted from local news to national news and programs like 60 Minutes. In the mid 1980s a great deal of attention was given to Washington DC homeless advocate Mitch Snyder who understood the importance of media in getting out his message. In watching old news clips it is interesting to see how the media, even back then, made homeless advocates appear as troublemakers, and how government officials were dismissive and downplayed the significance of Snyder’s efforts.
Mitch Snyder advocated for the needs of the local homeless, yet being in Washington DC, he’s actions had national repercussions. He requested that the government give one of it’s many empty buildings to his organization to use as a homeless shelter. Frustrated over the lack of progress being made in this regard, Mitch and others broke into a building and took it over, basically squatting on the property. Eventually the government conceded and allowed Mitch and his group to lease the building. Still the building was is very bad condition, walls were crumbling, plumbing did not always work, there was no heating, etc. So again Mitch called on the government to bring the building up to standards and make the needed repairs. The government, namely President Reagan, refused. In response to this, Mitch and 11 others went on a hunger strike. With Mitch near death, and an election nearing, President Reagan relented and promised to have the building repaired. This ended the hunger strike, but after several weeks, repairs had yet to begin.
Mitch Snyder’s struggle with the federal government continued until his death in 1990. But his efforts did provoke the government into action, and homeless people today are still benefiting for it. There is a documentary about Mitch Snyder and his organization CCNV that is available on youtube.com. Additionally, a low budget movie was made about Mitch called “Samaritan”, also available on youtube.com.