You Don't Need a Home to Vote

Pamela Wynn is now a graduate student in New Brighton, Minnesota, but she used to be out on the streets. Poor, hungry, and homeless, she says she never used to care about politics. Now voting has become an essential part of her life. There is no way she will fail to make it out to the polls this November, and her personal history has everything to do with that.

“I feel like our government has abandoned the poor and I have to do whatever I can,” she says. Wynn sees voting as an essential way to battle the feeling of powerlessness that many poor and homeless people may feel. She also sees it as “a way to take a stand whether anybody pays attention or not. It’s a place to start, to say, ‘This is enough!’”

Wynn feels that voting is particularly important for poor Americans, a group that turns out fewer voters than any other. “Right now our voice is not being heard, so we have to get it out there,” she insists. “I think right now the people who are voting are those whose needs are being met while the people who are struggling are too busy trying stay alive.”

In light of the upcoming elections, political activists have been working hard to give political voice to the many Americans living in poverty. Advocates for the poor are making voting a priority because they know that the reasons for which poor people tend not to vote are all of the same reasons for which they must vote.

On Thursday July 22nd, activists all over the nation organized the first ever National Low Income and Homeless Voter Registration Day. Together with shelters and other nonprofit groups, national organizations like the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Low Income Housing Coalition were able to register hundreds of low income Americans in 16 states and Washington D.C.

Voter mobilization is not a new concept for the National Coalition for the Homeless. Recognizing the barriers standing between homeless individuals and their right to vote, the NCH launched its “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote” Campaign in 1992. Using a five-pronged strategy, which included registration, education, get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts, state and federal legislation, and litigation, the campaign has successfully registered thousands of homeless people since its beginning.

Over the past twelve years, the NCH has worked with homeless shelters around the country. The group also encourages nonprofit sponsors to invite candidates to speak at voter education events. Often, county election officials visit shelters to hold training sessions on how to use the voting machines on Election Day. The campaign has also been successful in terms of legislation and litigation. As a result of NCH efforts, 10 states have passed laws expanding and clarifying voting rights for the homeless since 1992. An opinion issued this May, by Virginia’s Attorney General also made it possible for unsheltered homeless citizens to register to vote in the state.

On the federal level, the NCH has introduced a bill in three different congressional sessions that would amend the Voting Rights Act to give homeless citizens the unqualified right to vote on the national level. After the upcoming election, the NCH plans to re-introduce the bill for a fourth time.

Grassroots efforts, however, constitute the true driving force of the campaign. On National Low Income and Homeless Voter Registration Day, for instance, around 50 groups worked to get low income and homeless people registered. Many registration drives were held by youth groups. Michael Stoops, Project Director of the “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote” Campaign, believes that young people have a vested interest in homelessness issues.

“The average age of a homeless person is around 25, so there is a youthful nature to the homeless population,” says Stoops. He also thinks that young people make up a group that tends to care more about poverty issues than other Americans. “I believe that young people have not yet grown accustomed to the fact that we have homeless people living on our streets and sidewalks,” he says. “Young people still ask ‘why?’”

Kim Schaffer, Outreach Director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition agrees. “We reach many people under 25 by virtue of the fact that younger people tend to be less established in their jobs and are likely to be on the margins,” says Schaffer. “I think that certainly many young people can relate to wondering where the next month’s rent is going to come from or working two jobs even with a college degree.” But, she adds, there may be more to it than the shared struggle to survive. “I think homeless people and young people have a lot in common in terms of mistrust of the system,” says Schaffer.

This makes sense when one considers the fact that youth and low-income citizens comprise the two groups with the lowest voter turnout in the nation. Another factor, which may also account for their mistrust of the system, is the widespread disenfranchisement of both groups. Both students and homeless people encounter unfair obstacles on their way to the polls. In several documented cases of recent years, students have been unfairly kept from both registering and voting in their college town.

Homeless citizens encounter several obstacles as well. The issue of an address is of particular concern. Currently in forty states, a mailing address is required to vote, often creating a difficultly for transient and homeless individuals. However, this does not need to be the address of a person’s residence; it simply needs to be a place where he/she can retrieve mail. It could be the address of a local shelter, for instance.

It’s a widespread misconception that one must have a traditional permanent address in order to vote. In actuality, the name of a nearby street, intersection, or landmark is sufficient. A lack of public education is a key issue regarding disenfranchisement. When homeless Americans lack basic knowledge of their voting rights, they are far too easily turned away from the polls.

Other barriers faced by homeless citizens can be attributed to unfair stereotypes associated with the homeless. Michael Stoops attests that many Americans still categorize the homeless as mentally unstable, drunk, or lazy, and therefore have no incentive to help get the homeless out to the polls. “If we could tear down the walls of suburban homes in America, we would find the same number of families dealing with alcoholism, domestic abuse, and mental illness,” says Stoops. “The fact is, when homeless people vote, they know who they’re voting for.”

On top of all this, homeless people rarely have the power to take political action if they feel their rights have been violated. Nor do they always know their rights well enough to be sure of a violation. If this is the case, why aren’t politicians doing more to reach out to this group of potential voters? Many people would say that keeping the poor disenfranchised is exactly what politicians want. “I think it’s very threatening to politicians to think that the people they are ignoring might vote in great numbers,” says Pamela Wynn. “Then politicians would have to pay attention to them and make policy changes. They would be scared to death.”

The “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote” Campaign has been working harder than ever to effect such change in the policy priorities of politicians by increasing voter turnout among the homeless. According to Michael Stoops, if homeless people continue to fall behind in voting, politicians will continue to ignore their concerns. “With money being spent to wage war overseas, we also need to be waging war here at home in terms of tackling important domestic issues,” Stoops reminds us. “If we ignore poverty, health care, unemployment, and other domestic issues while our country’s at war, those issues are not going to go away, they are going to get even worse.”

In light of such concerns, the “You Don’t Need a Home to Vote” Campaign is working harder than ever to bring homelessness issues to the forefront of political debate. Last week, NCH representatives were at the Democratic National Convention in Boston to register voters and gain some attention from politicians. Outside the convention, protesters with loud voices did their best to raise awareness about the importance of poverty issues in this election. In the end of August, the Coalition will attend the Republican National Convention with similar goals in mind.

Michael Stoops expresses optimism at hearing poverty issues addressed by key speeches at the Democratic Convention. “We were pleased that the Democratic Nominee, John Kerry referred to people sleeping on the streets across the street in Lafayette Park and that John Edwards talked about the two Americas and said that anyone who works full time in this country should not be living in poverty,” said Stoops. “We hope that the republicans will do the same.”

Americans living in poverty, political candidates, and the general public all have something to gain from seeing more and more homeless and low-income people at the polls in November. Disproportionate representation of our lowest income bracket deprives America the promise of a true and full realization of democracy. Kim Schaffer feels that with greater awareness of voting rights issues for the homeless, Americans will have every reason to encourage lower class participation in the democratic process. “I think that the public understands that voting is absolutely a basic part of what it means to be American, and that whether or not you have a big fancy house, you are just as entitled to vote.”

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