Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Happy Birthday, Mitch Snyder

Belated, actually-- his birthday was a couple of weeks ago. God, I miss him. Mitch, a hardcore homeless and housing activist, is one of my heroes.

He came to Arise in 1988 and convinced us to turn out as many people as we could for a Washington, D.C. demonstration taking place the next year in support of the National Affordable Housing Act. This was a challenge for a poor people's organization, but, with other allies in Western Mass, we did it. I still have a picture of our group at the march, holding a Western Mass banner high and proudly, It's hung in my various offices for eighteen years.

"On July l4, 1988, attention and support for the "National Affordable Housing Act" was generated through actions in over seventy cities across the U.S.A. Most involved building take overs and other acts of civil disobedience.n October of 1989 the movement that Snyder helped create brought over 140,000 people to Washington to demand increased federal support for affordable housing.

Less than a year after that march on Washington Snyder was dead. He committed suicide in July of 1990." First Church Shelter, Cambridge.

This site talks about the accomplishments of Mitch's hunger fasts and acts of non-violent civil disobedience. I think Jim Stewart must have written it-- we had a chance to work together many years ago.

Mitch has been much on my mind these days, especially since Gerry McCafferty, the city's coordinator of homeless and special needs housing, mentioned Mitch in her opinion piece on homelessness in the Republican the Sunday before last. It turns out that Gerry was at that D.C. demonstration with Mitch, too. What she described as her most enduring memory of the day was being in a civil disobedience action and being yelled at by Rep. Barney Frank, D-MA, one of the sponsors of the housing legislation, who told Mitch and her group was undermining support for the bill.

Gerry told this story as part of explaining why she was now seemingly on the other side-- working within the system.

My most enduring memory of the day was the sea of people, most poor, many homeless, feeling a sense of our power, feeling hope and belief in the possibility of change.

And, after all, the legislation did pass. I'll bet Barney Frank even voted for it.

I love the way people like Gerry have such selective memories about the role of poor people in social change, and about the use of direct action, civil and otherwise, as a catalyst for that change.

Was homelessness even on the city of Springfield, Massachusetts' radar before Larry Dunham froze to death? Was there a plan before homeless people organized a tent city in the spring that lasted six months? I know there was not.

Recently I went back and reread the entire Homes within Reach document, the city's plan to end chronic homelessness within ten years. The plan does well making use of scarce resources to accomplish as much as possible. However, one resource left totally untapped is homeless and at-risk.people themselves.

I was supposed to be on that task force, along with Christina, one of the leaders of Sanctuary City. We were each at a couple of meetings, but then somehow never got notices....I'd call Russ Denver's office, then chair of the task force and still head of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, and ask when the next meetings were taking place...but we never heard...and then we heard there was a draft plan and it could be revised....but you know what it's like, once the solution is framed, all that's allowed after that is fine-tuning. (Nothing like splitting into subcommittees to limit the real number of decision-makers.

At the heart of all of this, of course, is class prejudice and self-interest, manifesting as the need to control those deemed lesser than you who are also perceived as a threat to your well-being.

Why else would human service workers talk about "servicing" people?
Why else would the Department of Transitional Assistance call a family in need "an assistance unit?"
Why else would the desires of homeless people be discounted so that those who "know better"can make the decisions?

The city is happy, now; the powers that be have had their way, the Warming Place shelter has been forced to close and the plan to end homelessness is underway. I hope the best of it succeeds, but the "managing" and "handling" of homeless people makes me sick.

Tonight when I was looking up a few facts about Mitch, I stumbled on a blog called Apesmas' Lament-- and a post just written on July19!--about the writer's memories of Mitch Snyder. It's a great piece and deserves reading. He talks about the Port of Seattle's refusal to sell to King County 162 apartments that could be made available to desperately poor people, choosing instead to demolish them. He ends by asking, "I wonder what Mitch would do?"

That's one of the questions I ask myself. Now, when many poor people start asking that question.....

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