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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow The open door : homelessness and severe mental illness in the era of community treatment


With the numbers of street dwellers increasing, and no organized effort by governmental agencies to address the problem of homelessness, the concerns of ordinary citizens fueled a transformation from voluntarism to advocacy. Support of homeless people took different forms in Washington, D.C., and New York City, early centers of homeless advocacy.

Civil Disobedience and Confrontation in the Nation’s Capitol: Mitch Snyder and the Community for Creative Non-Violence

Founded in 1970 by J. Edward Guinan, a former Catholic priest and chaplain at George Washington University, the Community for Creative NonViolence (CCNV) began as a nonprofit that blended antiwar activism with advocacy for Washington’s hungry and impoverished citizens. As the Vietnam War drew to a close, the group focused more intensively on the needs of people experiencing homelessness. The organization attracted dozens of volunteers, and within a few years it opened a soup kitchen, two hospitality houses for people awaiting trial, a free medical clinic, and an overnight shelter (

In 1974, Mitch Snyder joined CCNV and soon became one of its leaders. Throughout the 1980s, he became widely known nationally, giving voice to the movement in support of homeless people. He garnered considerable notoriety through his civil disobedience and is credited for his bold moves to awaken the nation to the plight of the homeless. As evidence of his celebrity, years later his life was the subject of a made-for-television film.

In 1978, the CCNV began holding an annual Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless and poor of Washington, D.C. It was held in Lafayette Park, across from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. In 1981, Mitch Snyder led a demonstration at the Thanksgiving dinner that included sleeping tents for homeless people to dramatize the fact that many were forced to sleep in parks, on the heating grates of local buildings, or in public spaces. The tent city that was created was called “Reaganville,” to call attention to gaps in the new Reagan administration’s public welfare policy. The Thanksgiving event captured considerable media attention in Washington and elsewhere (Associated Press, 1981).

The CCNV participants were permitted by National Park Police to serve the Thanksgiving dinner to several hundred needy people. The police warned, however, that overnight sleeping was prevented by national park policy. When CCNV did not comply with the warning, the police removed the group from the area. The CCNV initiated an appeal to the District Court on the basis that the sleeping ban violated First Amendment rights. The Court agreed, and the demonstration, including sleeping, was able to continue for several weeks over the winter months. Subsequently, the National Park Service revised its camping regulations for the National Capital Region to ban using park areas for living accommodations “regardless of the intent of the participants.” The following year, CCNV planned a second demonstration including the erection of tents for sleeping. The challenge to the new national park guidelines eventually led to a United States Supreme Court decision (Clark v. CCNV, 1984) in support of the National Park Service.

Soon thereafter, Snyder and a group of homeless people entered and occupied an abandoned Washington building that was formerly the Federal City College. They did so as a challenge to the Reagan administration to acquire the Federal City College building and have it renovated for use as a shelter. Snyder undertook a highly publicized 51-day fast to call attention to the shelter issue. President Reagan responded on the eve of his reelection by allocating the building to the Government of the District of Columbia for its renovation and use as a shelter. The 1,350-bed shelter was opened in 1988, operated by CCNV with its comprehensive array of support services, with a restrictive covenant that it was to remain a shelter for at least 30 years.

CCNV activism continued for several more years. In 1986, CCNV members lived outdoors on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol during a five- month campaign for the passage of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. CCNV members also played a major role in organizing the 1989 National Housing Now march to demand affordable housing. After Snyder’s death in 1990, CCNV held fewer public protests, focusing instead on operating the shelter.

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