In memory of Peter Snodgrass

Manfred Theis (
Mon, 09 Nov 1998 15:19:54 PST

--------- Forwarded Message ---------

DATE: Mon, 9 Nov 1998 09:27:38 
From: Blazing Star <>

A death where shelters are few

Monday, November 9, 1998

Staff Writer

Peter Snodgrass eked out a life on the fringes of

Like other homeless people, he'd rent a room in a
cheap motel until his government vouchers or
pocket money ran out. Then he'd sleep on a
makeshift bed in the woods along the Hackensack
River. He ate in soup kitchens and worked odd jobs
as a mechanic, when his epilpesy didn't interfere
or when alcohol or drugs weren't dragging him

Despite his marginal existence, in some circles
Snodgrass was well-known. When he died last week
at a South Hackensack motel, at age 50, word
filteredquickly throughout the homeless community.

Those who knew him recalled a troubled but likable
man. He would fix friends' cars for free, they
said, and could often be seen riding his bicycle.
He was easily recognizable with his mustache and
long brown hair tucked beneath a red, white, and
blue bandanna.

"He was a nice guy," said a 39-year-old homeless
man in Hackensack. "He minded his business. He
never bothered anybody."

Snodgrass' death comes as Bergen County officials
are trying to establish a 24-hour, year-round
shelter and social-service center for the homeless
in Hackensack to replace a patchwork of services
that exists today.

Although it is impossible to say Snodgrass' death
could have been prevented if better services were
available, advocates for the homeless say his
story underlines the need for more outreach.

"This guy's life should be an unbelievable
eye-opener for everybody," said Paul Burns of Salt
of the Earth, a Bogota-based ministry that aids
the homeless. By sleeping in the woods as
Snodgrass did, Burns said, it is easy to get sick,
and easy to go days without anyone noticing or
calling a doctor.

No official finding on the cause of Snodgrass'
death has been released, though some of his
relatives say he died of a seizure.

Snodgrass was found dead early last Monday. Police
said he was found lying near the bathroom in a
ground-floor room of the Jade East, a motel off
Route 46 in South Hackensack. Police, who received
a call from a man who had been sharing the room,
said they have ruled out foul play.
That man, known as John, could not be found to

An autopsy was performed, but the cause of death
has yet to be determined, Sunandan Singh, the
county medical examiner, said Friday.

Snodgrass had been homeless on and off for the
past year, Burns said, adding that it's common for
such people to stay at motels intermittently while
their cash orvouchers last. Vouchers for housing
are issued by the state and municipal welfare

The county now operates two homeless shelters in
Hackensack, one for single adults, the other for
families. But to be eligible, a person must follow
a strict set of rules that includes staying sober
and agreeing to treatment for substance abuse or
mental illness, if needed.

A third shelter, called Peter's Place and run by
Christ Church, offers a bed to anyone, no
questions asked. Yet with limited funds and other
demands on its space, the 25-bed shelter is open
only six months a year, from November through

Under the county's plan, Peter's Place would move
into a new year-round facility that would be open
24 hours a day and offer the homeless a place to
shower, pick up mail, and receive job counseling
and referrals for medical or psychological care.

A few months ago, the county suggested locating
the shelter in the Easter Seals building at
Railroad and Atlantic streets in Hackensack, but
Mayor John "Jack" Zisa and the City Council
rejected the idea, saying it could hurt the

City officials -- who long have said Hackensack,
as the county seat, shoulders too much of Bergen's
social-welfare burden -- insist they support the
idea of a new shelter, as long as it can harmonize
with its surroundings.

Meanwhile, Gina Plotino, the county's
human-services director, said the county continues
to look for other suitable sites in the city.

Burns suggested that other towns also be
considered, out of fairness to Hackensack and to
speed up the project. But Plotino said the city is
ideal because it is centrally located and home to
many social-service outposts that would easily be
accessible to anyone staying at the proposed

Snodgrass, who struggled with alcoholism for
years, is someone who could have been served by a
year-round, no-questions-asked shelter.

After city officials rejected the Easter Seals
site, Snodgrass told a television reporter what it
was like to be homeless:

"I sleep where I can, when I can. Where did I
sleep last night? By the river, by the submarine."
After his funeral Thursday, relatives, friends,
and acquaintances remembered Snodgrass. But
details of his life remain sketchy.

Snodgrass grew up in Palisades Park and developed
a knack for fixing car engines as early as age 12,
said his son, Peter, 23, who lives with an aunt in
Palisades Park. "A lot of people said he should
have been an engineer," he said.

At 15, his father began drag-racing in his own
customized cars at Raceway Park in Englishtown. He
later married and had a son and a daughter, but
apparently saw little of them as they grew up.

Snodgrass and his wife divorced, and the son was
raised by grandparents. The homeless man's ex-wife
lives in Florida.

The elder Peter Snodgrass also lived in Florida
for a time before moving back in with his parents
in Palisades Park, said his son. After his mother
died a year ago, the house was sold and Snodgrass
became homeless.

The younger Peter Snodgrass moved in with his aunt
in Palisades Park, but there was no room for his
father there.

Homelessness often stems from such predicaments,
said Robert Halsh, executive director of the
Bergen County Community Action Program, a private,
non-profit group that runs the county's homeless

"Our biggest fear," Halsh said, "is that you're
going to have more people like Peter spending
their days all alone, shunned by family and
friends, not because they're not loved and cared
for, but because they just don't have the capacity

Despite epilepsy and ongoing battles with drinking
and drugs, friends and acquaintances said,
Snodgrass found occasional work as a mechanic.

One place he worked was the Shell station at Route
5 and Anderson Avenue in Fort Lee. Rick Marinello,
whose father owns the shop, said Snodgrass worked
there years ago and was an excellent mechanic,
when sober.

"He couldn't keep a job, that was the problem,"
said Marinello, who heard from a friend that
Snodgrass had died. "He would go on these binges,
and you wouldn't see him for a couple of days."
More recently, Snodgrass would visit his son every
couple of weeks in Palisades Park. But he resisted
offers of help.

"Peter had a hard life," said a cousin, who
declined to give his name. "He drank. He was on
drugs. He had all kinds of problems. But you can
only help somebody who wants to be helped."

Among the homeless in Hackensack, Snodgrass made
several friends. Joe Milano, 48, said he met him
outside a Fort Lee motel nine months ago when
Snodgrass offered to share a sandwich with him.
Milano said he returned the favor by cooking him a
dinner the next day with spaghetti from a food

John Murrell, 60, said he knew Snodgrass through
the Salvation Army soup kitchen on State Street.
The night before he died, and a day after he
suffered a seizure for which he was treated at a
hospital, Snodgrass appeared sick and dizzy,
Murrell said.

Murrell said he urged Snodgrass to go to the
hospital as he was leaving the soup kitchen that
night. "But John, the little guy he was staying
with, said, 'No, we've been through this before. I
can take care of him.' And that was the last I saw
of Pete."

Copyright =A9 1998 Bergen Record Corp.

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