Mitch Snyder Saved Many Lives but Finally Took His Own

updated 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Rain clouds threatened to drench Washington, D.C., and Carol Fennelly had bad news to deliver. The longtime companion of housing rights champion Mitch Snyder, Fennelly, 41, stood under an umbrella in the street, facing reporters. "This afternoon, at approximately 2 P.M.," she said, "Mitch Snyder was found dead...." From out of the crowd of homeless people milling around Snyder's Federal City Shelter, a few blocks from the Capitol, a woman's voice began to rise and fall, rise and fall, like the sound of an approaching siren. "Who will take care of us now?" she keened. "Who will take care of us now?"

The fight for America's poorest will go on, but when Mitch Snyder wrapped an electrical cord around his neck and hanged himself, some of the fiery energy of the struggle died with him. During his 20-year campaign for social justice, Snyder, 46, proved part prophet and part pest, part saint and part stuntman. One of the Reagan era's loudest and most controversial advocates for housing the homeless, he often resorted to dramatic gestures to highlight his cause, sleeping on street grates and undertaking highly publicized hunger strikes. But fame never distracted him from his mission. "He loved the poor selflessly, like the Bible tells us," says Philip Berrigan, the veteran human rights activist. "And he had a great horror that they were getting screwed and abused and ridiculed."

Perhaps Snyder's compassion flowed from the knowledge that, had it not been for a few breaks, he might have ended up on the streets himself. His father ran off with another woman when Mitch was 9; Mitch's mother, Beatrice, a Brooklyn. N.Y., nurse, was left to raise a family on her own. At 16, Snyder was picked up for breaking into parking meters and sent to reform school. He carried memories of that painful, troubled childhood with him all his life. "That wasn't a good thing to do to a kid, to leave him without a father," Snyder told a reporter decades later. "I grew up swearing never, ever to do to my kids what my father had done to me."

Yet that was exactly what he did. Snyder worked at all kinds of jobs, from construction to selling vacuum cleaners, but never for very long. In 1969, after six years of marriage, Snyder walked out on his wife, Ellen, and their two sons, Ricky and Dean. He left New York for California. Within a year he and another man were charged in Las Vegas with auto theft, and Snyder ended up doing more than two years in federal prison, transferring to Danbury, Conn. There he met Philip Berrigan and his brother Daniel, Roman Catholic priests and Vietnam protesters who had been jailed for burning draft records. The Berrigans converted Snyder to their philosophy of nonviolent protest, and his life was transformed. "He was searching," Philip Berrigan recalls, "but didn't know where to make his contribution."

In 1973, after a brief attempt to reconcile with Ellen, Snyder moved to Washington. There he went to work for the Community for Creative Non-Violence, an antiwar group in search of a new cause. He found his place in the CCNV soup kitchen, and as the army of the homeless grew, so did Snyder's reputation for self-sacrifice. He lived at shelters himself and said he drew only a subsistence-level salary. On the eve of the 1984 presidential election, Snyder undertook a hunger strike, lasting 51 days, forcing Ronald Reagan to donate a decrepit federal building for the 1,400-bed Federal City Shelter, run by the CCNV.

But in the last few months, Snyder's life seemed to fall apart. His planned marriage to Fennelly was called off. Police said that in his suicide note Snyder talked about how he "wished she loved him as much as he loved her." Last week Fennelly refused to elaborate on the marriage plans, but told PEOPLE. "I think he got very tired. I think I failed him in that I wasn't there when he needed me. But Mitch didn't let a lot of people in." She also said that Snyder had been "deeply wounded" by critics of his recent tactics, which included banning census takers from the shelter to protest what he insisted would be an inevitable undercount of the homeless nationwide.

In the past Snyder had responded to such attacks by saying, "When you represent powerless people, you have to fight every step of the way." But now the attacks hit home. Last April, wearied by what he saw as the public's "psychic numbing" toward the homeless, he announced plans to take a leave and retreat to a Trappist monastery. On July 5, his body was found. For Mitch Snyder it was a most uncharacteristic decision: to leave the fight to somebody else.

—Charles E. Cohen, Tom Nugent in Washington, D.C.

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