When Jerry Jones was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), he attended a speech by Mitch Snyder, a nationally renowned advocate for the homeless.
"Mitch was very charismatic," recalled Jones, the new executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "He saw the world in black and white."
To the consternation of his parents, Jones dropped out of college and joined Snyder at his shelter in Washington. They were an odd pair: Jones was an aspiring pharmacist; Snyder was a perennial malcontent who had once been imprisoned for auto theft.
They remained together, a shaggy-haired ex-convict and his well-groomed disciple, until the summer of 1990, when Snyder hanged himself, referring in a suicide note to the troubled state of his relationship with Carol Fennelly, his longtime companion. Jones returned to college and switched his major to religious studies.
Two decades later, Jones remains an advocate for the country's burgeoning homeless class, which is facing a new challenge: public apathy. Many Americans see homelessness as an inevitability of urban life, like traffic jams or pollution.
"As a country, we have come to abide the existence of millions of people living in destitution," Jones said. "The reason there was a social movement in the 1980s is that homelessness was something new and shocking. There was a sense of moral outrage to see cities and sidewalks crowded with folks living out of doors."
Homelessness is, in most cases, a temporary condition. It ebbs and flows with the seasons, and there is no reliable measure of the number of homeless at any given time. Nonetheless, rates on homelessness appear to have doubled or even tripled over the last two decades. According to a 2007 study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, approximately 3.5 million people are likely to experience homelessness in a given year.
A native of Warsaw, N.C., Jones had never encountered homelessness on a broad scale until he followed Snyder to Washington. At the Community for Creative Nonviolence, a 1,350-bed shelter just two blocks from the Capitol, he worked in the kitchen, drove a van, and conferred with Snyder on political strategy.
The Community for Creative Nonviolence was not just a homeless shelter but a countercultural hot spot. Snyder and his acolytes captivated the public imagination with bold tactics, such as "evicting" the belongings of then-Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., from his office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building and draping a banner emblazoned with "Housing Now" from the roof of the Cannon House Office Building.
"I was [Snyder's] closest lieutenant during the last two years of his life," Jones said. "I participated with him on his last fast. I got arrested with him. I spent weeks at a time on the road with him traveling across the country to persuade other folks to come to Washington and get arrested."
With a pronounced jaw and a corona of matted black hair, Snyder had already emerged as a cultural icon, the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary and a CBS television movie in which he was played by Martin Sheen. In 1987, Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a suite of measures designed to ameliorate homelessness.
"My chief priority is to reenergize our grassroots field network," Jones said. "There was a lot of activism by housing advocates in the 1980s, but many of the organizations that led that fight have shifted into implementing the McKinney Act. The overall sector has become more professionalized; we need to get back on an organizing footing."
Before arriving at the National Coalition for the Homeless, Jones was director of special initiatives at the Center for Community Change. Earlier in his career, he served as Connecticut field director for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and later as legislative director for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.