The final chapter in the 'Book of Hopes and Dreams'
By MARCELA ROJAS from the LOS ANGELES TIMES
Carol Snider, a Santa Monica activist who rose above homelessness and AIDS to help others, dies at 44. The cause of death is not yet known.
With his trusty, cardboard sign reading "Sorry, I'm here. Need your help. Bless U" by his side, Keith Hyland could not fight the tears tracing a path down his leather-skinned cheeks. The 57-year-old homeless man had just learned that the buzz and whispers that reverberated throughout Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade for the last week were not just rumors--his best friend, Carol Snider, had died.
"I was her street Christian brother," said Hyland, who has been homeless on the Promenade for six years and is battling liver cancer. "I hadn't seen her in a week, but I didn't believe she had passed away. When you're homeless, you hear all kinds of things on the street that aren't true."
This wasn't one of them, however.
Snider, 44, a longtime activist for the homeless and disabled, was found dead on her couch, covered in a blanket, in her Ocean Park Avenue apartment May 18. The outspoken Santa Monica figure had been dead, according to the Los Angeles County coroner's office, for at least four days before someone checked the apartment she had moved into in February after years of living on the streets. The cause of death has not been determined pending toxicology reports expected to be completed in three to five weeks, said coroner's spokesman Dave Campbell.
For several years, Snider was a permanent fixture on the first block of the Promenade off Broadway. She carried herself with pride while bearing a large corrugated sign that some accepted and others shunned: "Why lie? I am a homeless woman living with AIDS. Please help." But for the many who knew her, Snider was much more than a panhandler. She helped others more than she sought for herself. True to her convictions, Snider handed out pamphlets educating others about AIDS, lived to fight for the rights of the homeless and terminally ill and worked furiously to create a disabilities commission in Santa Monica.
Last year, she was among 17 people appointed to the Santa Monica Disabilities Task Force, which was formed to study the feasibility of creating a disabilities commission. The Santa Monica City Council is expected to vote on forming the commission June 12.
"She was an activist who held us accountable for providing quality services for the homeless," said Lou Anne White, project director for Daybreak Day Center and Shelter for homeless and mentally ill women in Santa Monica.
"She would come by the shelter often to drop off information to keep everybody abreast of what was going on in the homeless community. She was a great voice for the homeless people that will truly be missed."
Snider's most recent quest was to stop the City Council from banning vehicular camping in the beach-side community. As a woman who sought perilous shelter near landscaped edges of parking lots or on cold, sandy beaches and was sometimes attacked in the night, Snider knew the value of having a roof over your head, whether it be in a car or home.
Although she didn't live to hear the outcome of her fight--the City Council is tentatively set to vote on the citywide ordinance July 24--Snider's efforts did not go unnoticed.
"Santa Monica has many deeply committed and involved residents who contribute to our civic dialogue and help make good things happen in our city," said Councilman Kevin McKeown. "What made Carol special was that she herself had so little yet was willing to give so much."
Tireless in her political pursuits, perhaps Snider's greatest accomplishments were in the day-to-day offerings she made to the homeless and others throughout the community. Having little for herself, she often would share her money, bus tokens, clothes and cigarettes with some of the area's neediest homeless. Sometimes she would collect enough money to lodge at the American Hotel in Santa Monica. When she did, Snider would invite other homeless people to share the room and get out of the cold. And even after she landed her apartment, after waiting nearly two years to be cleared for so-called Section 8 housing, Snider still made a habit of visiting the Promenade to make sure her homeless friends were all right and to pass along a dollar or a cigarette for those in need.
"She helped us out all the time," said Yoshi Poulos, 22, who has been homeless on the Promenade for six years. "Money, cigarettes, advice when I was down on my relationship. She was our moral support. I called her 'Mom.' "
Snider's greatest treasure was a tattered sketchbook she called her "Book of Hopes and Dreams." The weathered note pad, given to her by Hyland after he found it while "dumpster diving," chronicled the wishes and aspirations of more than 100 homeless people in Santa Monica.
Snider began recording the thoughts in 1999 after asking people what they would wish for to make their lives easier on the streets. Some of those pleas, such as guitars, songbooks, oil pastels and sketch paper, were read by others and brought to Snider to distribute to the homeless.
"I want to get a copy of the book and leave it out in her memory, to continue what she started," said Hyland, who finds respite on the edge of a fountain on the Promenade.
"Losing Carol feels like when I lost my twin sister at 13. She filled an empty void for me. We took care of each other. Putting the book out is the least I can do for her."
Although Snider managed to create a family unit on the streets, it was only recently that lines of communication were reopened within her own family. Born the third of four daughters to William and Carolyn Skinner, Snider grew up in Ventura County. Family problems started early for her after she became pregnant at 14. Snider gave birth to her son, Christopher Skinner, when she was 15, and he was raised primarily by her parents. In and out of each other's lives throughout much of Skinner's formative years, mother and son almost completely stopped seeing each other after Snider was diagnosed with AIDS in 1996.
She had previously stated that she contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from her fiance, who has since died of AIDS-related complications. Consequently, she was catapulted onto the streets.
Throughout the 1990s, Snider was arrested numerous times in Los Angeles and Ventura counties on drug possession charges.
"I am so grateful for a friend of mine who told me to seek my mother out about a year ago after his mother passed away," Skinner said. "I resisted seeking her out, out of anger, hurt, pain, skeletons in the closet. It wasn't to be selfish or out of self-pity, it's just how I felt."
As he sat in his Ventura County home last week before he and other family members scattered his mother's ashes in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, Skinner found himself trying to fit the pieces together of his mother's death by talking to those who knew her well and remembering the brief times he spent with her. Skinner said he is anguished at not knowing the cause of his mother's death. Snider's doctor, Christine Klasen, who had seen her two weeks before her death but relinquished her care to a neurologist who could provide Snider with new medication, does not think her death was HIV-related. It is just one more thing Skinner will have to learn about his mother after she is gone.
"Her life to me was a mystery. I don't want her death to be a mystery as well," he said. "I know it wasn't drugs or drinking. With as much love as she had for the city and the people who looked up to her, her death had nothing to do with her past.
"After so many years, she finally saw her sons and grandson and came to terms with her father [and] I think she started to let her body shut down.
"In my heart, I know she died on Mother's Day and God is trying to tell me that I need to remember her on that day."
'DO NOT FEEL SORROW'
--Carol Snider, 2000
"She always talked about how few beds there were in the city. She often walked at night counting the people on the streets. She made an impact here and emphasized how much she had to get done in so little time. I think it was less time than we all expected."
--Donna Lee Merz, associate pastor, First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica
"She encouraged me to write more poetry. She was my support on these streets."
--Marc Tury, 29, homeless in Santa Monica
"I just hope that when people attend her memorial service, they come with a feeling of love, respect and dedication in their hearts and understand how important it is to help people who are often cast aside and suffer challenges. That's what Carol was all about."
--Jerry Rubin, Santa Monica activist
"She was my friend. I used to visit her, give her rides home. In a way, I'm happy she died because she was sick. . . . She's in a better place."
--Larbi Toudert, pizza parlor waiter