Past Catches Up With Hero to Homeless

The Washington Post

Before all the fasts, before “60 Minutes,” before the made-for-TV movie, before the confrontations with the White House, before he became a nationally acclaimed advocate for the homeless, Mitch Snyder had a very different life with Ellen, Ricky and Dean.

It was a life in which he married young, fathered two children, lived in a small Brighton Beach apartment, sold washing machines and was once honored as the Maytag “man of the month.” It was also a life in which he bounced from job to job, couldn’t pay the rent, became increasingly withdrawn, passed bad checks, did a stretch in prison and finally, one day, walked out.

When Snyder abandoned Brooklyn for Washington on that autumn day in 1972, he left behind a young wife and two small boys who were forced to live on welfare checks and food stamps. For the next 13 years, as he grew increasingly prominent in the nation’s capital, Snyder had no contact with his former family.


Ellen Daly, a candid and chatty housewife who is now remarried, recalled her marriage to Snyder in a long, emotionally charged interview in the neatly appointed living room of her Sheepshead Bay apartment.

“We had no money,” Daly says. “He was ashamed, he was angry, he was upset with himself, he hated his life. We were in debt, we owed rent, we kept getting evicted. We kept taking money from my father. . . . He just felt he was caught in a web and he had to get out.”

Although she makes no effort to hide the pain that Snyder caused her, Daly is remarkably free of bitterness toward her former husband. They re-established contact 2 1/2 years ago after she saw him on television, and Snyder now stays in occasional touch with Ricky, 23, and Dean, 20. Ellen Daly, at 44, has finally made her peace with the man she calls Mitchell.

“I said to him on the phone, ‘Mitchell, forgive yourself. I forgave you a long time ago.’ He said no--that’s his punishment to himself. He said, ‘Till the day I die, I’ll never forgive myself.’ ”

It all seems so long ago, these faded black-and-white snapshots spread on her coffee table: Mitch, a gangly Flatbush teen-ager with a slicked-down pompadour, Ellen in a towering beehive hairdo. But in a 1985 letter written shortly after they re-established contact, Snyder showed he had not forgotten:

“I meant it when I said I’m sorry for all the pain I’ve caused you and the boys. I swear to you that I truly wish it had been otherwise. I beg your pardon. I love all of you. Mitch.”


Mitch Snyder is sipping tea in the third-floor lounge of a cavernous concrete building on 2nd Street NW. He is enormously proud of this building. With nothing more than a determination to starve himself to achieve his goals, Snyder, 44, wrested the decaying structure from reluctant federal officials and helped transform it into a brightly painted shelter for 1,000 homeless people.

Dressed in his trademark Army surplus jacket, faded jeans and work boots, Snyder cradles his newest accessory, a walkie-talkie, which crackles now and then with messages from other members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence. He takes no salary, wears donated clothing, eats discarded food, drives an old Chevy. He sleeps on a mattress on the floor of a sparsely furnished room down the hall.

A courageous, risk-taking hero to some, an infuriating, headline-hungry zealot to others, Snyder has become a symbol, a constant reminder of those who sleep in alleys and on heating grates. He has spent nearly two years of his life not eating for various causes, slept on the streets for two winters and been arrested more times than he can remember.

These exploits have made him a media star, a status he says he doesn’t particularly enjoy. For the first dozen years of controversy and celebrity, Snyder says he tried, sometimes without success, to block out all thoughts of his ex-wife and two sons in Brooklyn.

“I had to get out of there,” he says. “I was just trapped under responsibilities and obligations that weren’t me, that I didn’t want to deal with, and that I incurred primarily because I married before I had any understanding of who I was. I was 20. It was an incredibly stupid thing to do. . . .

“I just literally woke up one day in a cold sweat and realized it was crazy. I was not going to spend the rest of my life doing what I was doing. That was not what I was supposed to be. I didn’t know who I was, but I knew who I wasn’t.”


He is not trying to “excuse ways in which I was irresponsible back then,” Snyder hastens to add. He simply found himself “unable to be a husband and father in the traditional sense.”

Snyder does not have to be asked about the parallel with his own childhood. His father, Robert Snyder, left his wife for another woman when Mitch was 9, severing all ties to his family and leaving them in financial distress.

“I grew up swearing never, ever to do to my kids what my father had done to me,” Snyder says. “Because that wasn’t a good thing to do to a kid, to leave him without a father.” Yet somehow, he says, “I did exactly what was done to me.”

Ellen Kleiman met Mitchell Darryl Snyder at night school in the fall of 1961. He was wearing a black shirt, black pants, black shoes and a black raincoat. He had dropped out of Erasmus Hall High School and was making a short-lived attempt to get his diploma; she had graduated from Lincoln High and was hoping to become a nurse. They were 18.

“He was very quiet,” Daly says. “He was very sad. Something was hurting him.” Although she was quite shy around boys, something attracted her: “I was the type that would bring home all the hurt animals, and all the hurt people.”

Snyder asked her to have coffee, she agreed, and they began to date. Snyder never had any money; Ellen always paid his way. More often than not, they would share a hot dog and a walk on the Brighton Beach boardwalk.


As the relationship grew, Ellen began to learn about Snyder’s background and why he incessantly played Al Jolson records. Snyder’s father had been a child radio star who sang with Jolson and Eddie Cantor, sometimes working at burlesque houses.

Ellen also learned how deeply Snyder was shaken when his father ran off to Chicago. “He was hurt that his father didn’t care enough to get in touch, to want to see him,” Daly says. “He was hurt and he was angry.”

Life had become a daily struggle for Mitch and his mother. “I remember the absence of my father very clearly,” Snyder says. “My father made a lot of money, but got real testy about sending enough along.”

Beatrice Snyder went to work as a nurse, and Mitch began breaking into parking meters. He kept getting caught. At 16 he was sent to an Upstate reform school for bright but antisocial youngsters.

Ellen’s world was very different. While he lived in a dark and dingy Flatbush apartment, her mother kept the family’s Neptune Avenue house bright and cheery. Her father, a Polish immigrant who made dresses by machine, was strongly opposed to the relationship.

Nevertheless, on Oct. 13, 1963, Mitch and Ellen were married by a rabbi in a small temple on Brighton 13th Street. From the first days of the marriage, Daly says, “I was the typical housewife. I would have his dinner ready. It’s just how I’m raised. Women’s lib would kill me.”


Snyder’s father died after they were married, and he flew to Chicago, uninvited, for the funeral. Within a year of their wedding day, Ellen was pregnant. After Ricky was born in March, 1965, the couple separated for the first time.

They reunited a few months later, and Dean was born in 1967. But Snyder was still having trouble adapting to a 9-to-5 existence. He sold vacuum cleaners and washers, worked as a job counselor on Madison Avenue, even tried construction work.

Snyder says he grew to hate each job because “I was doing it strictly for money,” a concept he now likens to prostitution.

His erratic job record meant that Ellen’s father had to pay some of their bills, sometimes even the $170 rent on their apartment. Although Snyder was not especially political at the time, Daly says, he became depressed after Robert F. Kennedy was murdered.

“He got deeper into himself,” Daly says. “He was withdrawing from the children. He wanted to be left alone a lot. He’d watch TV or go to sleep. . . . Sometimes he would stay away a day or two, he would roam the streets. I was worried, I was upset, I was going crazy. . . .

As their finances deteriorated along with their marriage, Snyder passed a few bad checks. “It was really very simple to do,” he says. “To be honest, in working in the business world, I learned that everyone is essentially ripping everyone else off. . . . The laws simply make it possible for them to rip people off without going to jail.”


In 1969, Snyder informed his wife he was leaving. “I just said, ‘Listen, I can’t do this anymore.’ She didn’t understand. It hurt her very deeply.”

After hitting the road, Snyder says, “I just kind of bounced around. Very Jack Kerouac, I suppose, looking for myself.”

Illegal Fast Money

The following year, Snyder went to California to pursue an illegal fast-money scheme. He hooked up with a shady character who had helped him pass bad checks in Brooklyn. Days later, police arrested the pair in Las Vegas in a car that had been reported stolen. They also found forged IDs. Snyder says his associate had rented the car and that he does not believe it was stolen.

Nevertheless, Snyder was charged with auto theft. Ellen’s father paid the bail. After a few months back in New York, he was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. He was later transferred from California to the federal prison in Danbury, Conn.

Ellen visited her husband there every other week, and they talked of reconciling when he got out.

Soon afterward, Daly says, “The love letters I was getting were becoming political letters. All of a sudden he was talking about the war and what the government was doing to our people.”


Mitch Snyder had met the Berrigan brothers.

Daniel and Philip Berrigan, at Danbury for destroying draft board records, were the leaders of a group of prisoners who had refused to fight in Vietnam. The two priests took Snyder under their wing, teaching him about radical Christianity, the Bible and nonviolent protest.

Ellen, meanwhile, was struggling to rear the boys herself. She was living on welfare and handouts from her father. Nathan Kleiman, who had worked since he was 11, was horrified.

Having destroyed any chance for parole, Snyder served his full term and was released in May, 1972. When Ellen picked him up at Danbury, he “was like a stranger again,” she says. “He was saying things that frightened me,” insisting that they live in a communal setting.

Ellen made an effort to understand her husband’s new life, accompanying him to antiwar gatherings. But, she says, “I felt like a dummy. The women were all in dungarees, no bras, and I would come all dressed up.”

The final break came in the fall. “We sat on the couch and we both cried,” Daly says. “There was no way to save the marriage.”

“She basically wanted me to be like other people, and I basically wasn’t like other people,” Snyder says. “If it doesn’t work, I just kind of move on.”


Snyder took an apartment in the East Village, working with a local advocacy group. In 1973 he moved to Washington to join CCNV, then an antiwar group. His wife filed for divorce and told Snyder it would be better for Ricky and Dean if he stopped parachuting in and out of their lives.

“I confess that made it easier for me,” Snyder says. He says he provided no child support because he never earned any money. He avoided thinking about his sons, except for “late at night, when you’re lying there sweating.”

After the divorce, Daly says, “I just didn’t hear from him. It was like he disappeared, he vanished.”

Snyder was privately struggling with his conscience, says the woman who became his most intimate partner. Carol Fennelly, 38, who has been Snyder’s companion for most of her 11 years at CCNV, says he had trouble letting go of the past.

Back in Brooklyn, Ellen Snyder was also putting her shattered life back together. In 1975 she married Tom Daly, a plumber from the Bronx, and they had a son, Tommy Jr., now 12. She got off welfare--”the greatest day of my life,” she says--and Ricky and Dean began helping out with after-school jobs.

Daly became dimly aware that Snyder was an advocate for the homeless, but she knew nothing of his celebrity status until she and her kids saw a rebroadcast of the “60 Minutes” piece in the spring of 1985.


“It was unbelievable,” Daly says. “I sat there staring at a man I didn’t know anymore--the long hair, the jacket, the stooped shoulders. Dean was fascinated, like his father’s a movie star. But Ricky was very quiet. He just stared. He was staring at his own face. . . . There was a lot of hurt in his eyes.”

Soon afterward, relatives sent Daly clippings showing that Snyder was to receive $150,000 for an upcoming CBS movie about his work with the homeless. The more she thought about it, the angrier she got. Ricky was in college in Chicago, Dean wanted to start college and Tom was “breaking his behind” at his plumbing job. And Snyder hadn’t given her a cent.

Ellen debated whether to call him. Finally, she dialed CCNV’s number and told Snyder she was calling for the sake of the boys.

Snyder says he realized that Ellen was using the money as an excuse to re-establish contact. In any event, they spoke for an hour and a half. Snyder agreed to send the boys a few hundred dollars from his speaking engagements. He asked tentatively about seeing them.

That summer, Snyder and Carol Fennelly went to Brooklyn to see Ellen and Dean. The visit went well. They came back a month later to see Ricky, who had been away at school and is now an analyst for a Chicago research center.

Relationship With Sons

Snyder is pleased to have some relationship with his sons after so many years.

And in Brooklyn, Ellen Daly follows her ex-husband’s exploits with a mixture of pride and amazement, trying to reconcile his relentless compassion for the downtrodden with what happened between them.


Snyder makes little effort to soften Daly’s portrait of him as a driven, unhappy man, saying only that God has chosen him for this work.

“I don’t consider myself a good person,” he says. “I tend to be very impatient, I tend to be very short, I tend to make heavy demands on people. I don’t have time or energy to give much one-on-one, and so I’m very hard on people around me. I take much more than I give. I give to people in the shelter, I give to people on the streets, I give to people who are suffering, but that’s got little to do with people who are around me. They pay the price.”