PEOPLE

New Leader of Homeless Coalition Confronts Public Apathy About an Intractable Problem

Jerry Jones is the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
Aug. 28, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

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.

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