For the fifteen participants in the Positive Step support group, held in Partnership for the Homeless’ headquarters in Chelsea, Thursday’s session was a departure from the usual. Rather than coping with health and other chronic problems as they do every week, the homeless individuals were introduced to a concept familiar to most other Americans: registering to vote.
In the session, trained volunteers dispelled common misconceptions about registering to vote and told the homeless citizens that with or without a traditional home, everyone has the right to be part of the democratic process.
“We are doing this for a population that is invisible in politics. The hope is for homeless folks who don’t have a home to actually have a voice in government,” said Walter Rodriguez, associate director of the Partnership’s emergency shelter network. “We want to create a culture around registering people to vote.”
By educating potential voters and training volunteers and providers to register voters in shelters, the Partnership is now in its third registration campaign, stretching back to the 2004 presidential election. This year, the Partnership aims to register 1,000 more of the nearly 32,000 who live in homeless shelters by the Oct. 13 registration deadline, according to Rodriguez.
While the voter registration drive got underway after the Aug. 18 deadline for voting in this week’s primaries, Elana Shneyer, the Partnership’s coordinator for the initiative, said the nonprofit had contacted every homeless shelter in the city — including all family, single adult, youth, and domestic violence centers — about offering an opportunity for voter registration before the Nov. 7 general elections. “Shelters make sense because you can rally there easier,” Shneyer said.
Though it is hard to interest people for midterm elections, Shneyer said that the group will conduct a registration effort as the Partnership did with the 2004 and 2005 elections, replete with street outreach and participation in national awareness campaigns.
The support group members named a variety of reasons why they are not registered or do not vote. Daniel Torrez, who lives in Brooklyn, feels like his last vote won Bill Clinton the presidency in 1992. After falling on hard times, he became disenchanted with politics and government. “I thought homeless people could not vote. I thought [felons] could not vote,” he said. (In New York State, once a convict has completely finished his sentence, he can vote again.) In the last few years, he’s picked himself up with the help of the Partnership. After the voter registration education, Torrez said he was ready to take his concerns about medical and social issues to the polls, saying, “If I don’t vote, nothing’s going to change.”
The right of the homeless to vote was guaranteed 22 years ago in Pitts v. Black, a 1984 federal court case in New York that ruled that states cannot deny the right to vote to someone who lacks a traditional residence.
As a result of that and subsequent cases, the homeless were guaranteed the explicit right to vote, though that right has not been widely exercised. A gap remains in participation between different income levels. Census data from 2000 shows that only 59 percent of those earning between $10,000 and $14,999 a year were registered to vote, and only 44 percent actually voted. This compares to the 82 percent registered and 75 percent who vote in the $75,000 and above income bracket. Michael Stoops, acting executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless, said that on average, one third of all homeless people in the country are registered to vote. That number jumps to one-half in communities with voter registration drives and rises even higher when races are competitive.
The New York City Board of Elections (BOE) keeps voter registration records including name, date of birth, sex, party, mailing address, and, if different, residential address. Using a shelter or relative’s home as a mailing address allows the homeless to register even if they do not spend every night in the same permanent housing. The person’s polling place is then determined by the mailing address.
Some shelters, such as the Bergen Street Residence in Brooklyn, make an active effort to register those served. According to the BOE, there are 59 qualified voters registered at the shelter’s address.
Advocates acknowledge the difficulty of registering people for whom participation in the democratic process may not be of immediate concern. The National Coalition for the Homeless publishes a voting rights guide for distribution to homeless services providers encouraging not only registration drives for the homeless, but making registration a step in the shelter intake process.
With the help of the Partnership, Charles Jennings, a social services director for nonprofit HELP USA, coordinated a nonpartisan “know-your-rights” and democracy training session in August for residents at the group’s Supportive Employment Center on Wards Island. Serving approximately 200 single adults, Jennings estimated a third of the shelter’s clientele became registered voters for the first time following the event.
“HELP USA as a whole wants to make sure that they are executing the best right — the right to democracy — that they have,” Jennings said. “They don’t understand that this is a right of theirs.”
Lavelle Brown, an attendee of last Thursday’s Positive Step support group couldn’t remember whom she voted for when she last voted years ago, but said that after being educated, she’s ready to rejoin the democratic process. “Now I have the information and I’m going to make a difference,” said Brown of her newfound understanding. “I believe I could help the homeless now.”