ONE NIGHT, when Michael Stoops was a boy, his grandfather froze to death alone on a riverbank.
The old man was an alcoholic, and he just never made it to shelter that night.
The memory of his grandfather, and the thought of 3 million Americans today who don't have permanent shelter, are two of the reasons Stoops does what he does -- advocate full time for the homeless.
Stoops, 40, is assistant executive director and field coordinator of the National Coalition for the Homeless, in Washington, D.C. He is visiting Buffalo this week to help local groups devise tactics to deal with the problem in Western New York.
The more glamorous part of Stoops' job is traveling to different cities every month and calling attention to homelessness, through such actions as celebrity "sleep-outs" with people like Martin Sheen and the late Mitch Snyder. Snyder, the homeless activist who committed suicide in July, was Stoops' friend.
But that's not what Stoops is doing in Buffalo. Buffalo is not ready for homeless demonstrations, one local activist told Stoops at a Main Street shelter Wednesday morning.
No problem, said Stoops, whose group is known for more confrontational tactics. "My group learned a long time ago that you need to be militant in a good way. . . . In some places hunger strikes and civil disobedience are not always the best thing."
Instead, Stoops is here for what he considers the more difficult task of coalition building and quietly getting more people to think about the bigger picture.
"It should really be a thousand points of agitation," Stoops said. "Mother Teresa characters are fine. Mitch Snyder characters. But we need to organize the public (on a bigger scale) to create organizations to deal with the issue."
Stoops was invited by the Coalition of Emergency Assistance Providers, a group of about 70 agencies that serve the homeless in Western New York. The agencies think they should be better coordinated to help the more than 7,000 people who are homeless at one time or another during the year, and to force political change on their behalf, said Karen Klementowski, chairwoman-elect of the coalition and program director at Lake Shore Community Mental Health Center.
Coalition members began filling Stoops in on the local situation Tuesday night in the Little Portion Friary, 1305 Main St., a shelter for men and women. Stoops was spending the night in one of the shelter's neat, compact bedrooms.
One of the keys in Buffalo will be to get homeless men and women themselves involved in fighting for more low-income housing and other issues, Stoops told the little group that pulled up chairs in the Friary's kitchen.
"We (homeless activists who aren't homeless) are never going to solve this problem, because we are not as angry as we should be and not as compassionate as we could be," he said. "We need to organize a non-violent army of homeless people. We have to make sure homeless people are involved in running the shelters and the housing projects."
Stoops, with kindly crinkles around his eyes and a quiet voice, comes off more like Henry Fonda than a veteran activist. Like a Fonda hero, he communicates conviction by means other than a loud voice or wild gestures. He admits he's usually not the one in the movement who gets bitterly confrontational, as Snyder would.
"People have different gifts," he said. "I don't like yelling at people. I'm different from Mitch Snyder. We can all help in different ways."
He attended Ball State University in Indiana -- "which also graduated David Letterman" -- and spent his 20s as a social worker, community organizer and lobbyist for various causes in various cities. Ten years ago he started focusing on homelessness, and he moved to the Washington office of the National Coalition.
Sauntering along in blue jeans, a checked shirt and a knit cap, he seemed endlessly curious and friendly during a tour Wednesday of shelters, soup kitchens and legislative chambers.
"If men and women are willing to go to Saudi Arabia and put their lives on the line for a barrel of oil, maybe it's time to put lives on the line for homeless people who are dying," he said.
He showed evidence of the wrongheaded thinking about homeless people that still exists: Walt Disney is marketing a toy character this Christmas called "Steve the Tramp," a homeless person described on the box as a "public enemy . . . stinking up the city."
He asked about public housing units in Buffalo subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development even though they are empty, while people go homeless. In other cities, squatter movements and civil disobedience are surfacing in response to wasted housing, he said. Homeless people in Minneapolis nailed boards on the windows of the local HUD office, a symbol of the boards barricading unused public housing stock.
Dr. Darwin Overholt and his wife, Christine, welcomed Stoops to the City Mission and its affiliated Cornerstone Manor for homeless women and children. Stoops said the facilities together make one of the largest mission operations anywhere in the country.
But he also urged the Buffalo coalition to look beyond emergency sheltering to the root reasons that some people have no place to go at night.
"Shelters and missions are fine," he said. "But giving someone three hots and a cot is not going to change his homelessness."
THIS KEYSUM IN CASE JUMP IS SHORT:
Protests are surfacing in response to wasted housing.