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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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