By: Tim Houchen
September 24, 2020 —
This is the first article in a series titled,”It’s Our Time, Our Voice: California Homeless Votes Count 2020.” This series of articles is dedicated to the 2020 General Election and how it relates to persons experiencing homelessness in California. In this article we will discuss the roles that homeless advocates and volunteers can play in engaging the homeless community to participate in voter registration and ensuring that their votes will be counted on election day
Next topics include voter education of candidates and ballot measures that affect the homeless, and spotlights on candidates throughout the state that are homeless or have personal experience with homelessness.
Americans will soon head to the polls. While much attention will be paid to the presidential race, voters will also choose members of Congress as well as state and local representatives. Many of these elected officials will play a role in addressing homelessness. Advocates and concerned citizens will be reaching out to them while they are on the campaign trail or when they are newly sworn into office, asking these politicians to implement new and helpful policies.
President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over there own destinies.”
“This right to vote is the basic right without which all others are meaningless. It gives people, people as individuals, control over there own destinies.”
— Lyndon B. Johnson
California has taken massive strides to make it easier for its estimated 150,000 homeless residents to vote on election day, November 3rd. The question is how many of these homeless residents will exercise their right to vote? Can they be convinced that voting gives them control over their destinies?
Some of the issues at stake in the upcoming election are health care, affordable housing and wealth equality, all are important to our nations poor and homeless. Now, more than ever our homeless brothers and sisters need to exercise their sacred right to vote. Their vote is their voice. That voice tells candidates and elected officials that they want to participate in the control of their destinies.
There is no greater way that homeless persons can express discontent with the current rate of effort to address homelessness. If their voice is lifted enough, it can be heard as a demand for better health care, more affordable housing, jobs that pay a living wage, and a system of care that provides a path away from homelessness and towards future self-sustainability.
Despite the strides mentioned that make it easier for persons experiencing homelessness to vote, there are still obstacles that remain between them and the ballot box. The average person that has never experienced homelessness may be completely unaware of the existing obstacles that challenge nearly all homeless persons and complicate their ability to vote.
This article is a “call-to-action” for advocates, volunteers, and other supporters from faith and community organizations to be aware of the barriers that homeless persons face in participating in the election process and provide the necessary assistance with a goal of making homeless votes count.
There is a best-practice for getting homeless voters to the polls. It requires that supporters build a comfortable relationship built on trust with members of the homeless community. Encouragement is important and a “what-ever-it-takes’ philosophy will guide how advocates and volunteers provide the assistance that homeless persons need to cast their vote. It may require walking them through the entire process.
It takes a little more effort than providing them with a sack lunch and a pair of socks, but at the end of the day look at the results of your effort. Beyond the benefits of sustenance and hygiene, you have empowered a homeless person or perhaps an entire homeless community.
There are many reasons why homeless persons are either reluctant to vote or find it too discouraging to do so. Here are a few of those reasons that you may not already be aware of.
California no longer requires a standard home address. Homeless persons can register using an approximate address using landmarks, cross streets or an address at a homeless shelter. That’s fine if they are registered, but if they have no transportation to the polling location then it’s less likely for them to make it there to vote.
Other articles in our series
“It’s Our Time, Our Voice: California Homeless Votes Count 2020”
Can Persons Experiencing Homelessness Vote?
One of the most frustrating things for homeless persons is any activity requiring them to leave all of their possessions behind unattended. Their possessions may not seem valuable to some, but it’s everything they own to them. It’s not easy for them to make that decision to leave their possessions behind while they go to vote because their possessions would be subject to confiscation in a police sweep or an unscrupulous member of the encampment might steal their possessions. These are some of the worse things that could happen to most homeless persons.
One year, a group that I worked with, rented a U-Haul truck. We parked the truck in the closest legal proximity to the encampment. We gave each person a plastic card with a number identifying them and we placed tags with that same number to identify their belongings and loaded them in the back of the truck. Two volunteers were stationed at the rear of the truck to oversee the intake and outtake of personal belongings.
We consulted a nearby church that operated a homeless shelter. The church had an old school bus that they used to pick homeless persons up at several locations in the evening and then return them early the next morning. The buses were not obligated to anything between 9 and 5, so we asked the church to provide transportation to the polls and they were happy to help. They even provided a sack lunch, snacks and cold soda and even a bag of groceries to take with them for added incentive for persons to vote.
Of the 120 or so inhabitants of the homeless camp we were working with, 45 persons voted because of our efforts. That amount is still short of the overall average of eligible voter turnout for elections, which is about 60%, but it is an incredible feat when you consider that only a handful of people from that encampment would have been able to vote if not for our assistance.
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Polling places along with the presence of police officers and government officials can be scary for some persons experiencing homelessness. Supporting members of the community that have built relationships with the homeless and are trusted by them can provide transportation and support at the voting centers. If you walk-in to the voting center with them they are more likely to feel safer and more comfortable with someone that can help them to blend in with other members of the housed community that go there to vote.
Early voting begins on October 5th in California. With same day registration in effect it means that with one trip to a voting center, a person can both register and vote at the same time. If someone does not have I,D. the last four digits of that persons social security number will be sufficient to be eligible.
Don’t risk waiting until the last day and not making it to the voting center. Find more information relevant to the county you live in before going to register or vote. You can find the location of your County Elections Office here or call Secretary of State’s toll-free Voter Hotline at (800) 345-VOTE (8683).
Many homeless persons choose to stay away from the election process simply because they don’t feel as though they are up-to-date with all of the information and news that would help them to decide who and what to vote for. It’s hard enough for some that spend their time looking for something to eat or trying to decide the best place to sleep that night. Forget about tomorrow, these people are living day-to-day and much of the daily news is history by the time they get it.
A few years ago, we gathered a group of young students from the local university. We asked the students to research candidate based on whether the record showed them in favor of or against certain legislation that would benefit the homeless community with housing and other services. We also had them evaluate some of the propositions and make a brief explanation on each.
What we created was a homeless voters guide and we printed it on a couple of pages and the students took hygiene kits and handed out the voters guide and spoke with some of the homeless campers and gave encouragement to them to vote. The students came back every week until the election and offered voters education and bus passes to the homeless so that they could get to their polling places.
There’s a lot at stake for people who are unhoused right now in the presidential election. And yet there’s more effort now than ever before to undermine the effort of organizing people who are low-income and homeless.
If we care enough for our homeless brothers and sisters, we will assist them to exercise their right to vote and we will make sure that their votes count so they can have that voice they need to have more control over their destinies.
We have provided a number of links that might help with assisting homeless persons to register and vote in the upcoming election on November 3rd.
The Secretary of State’s Guide to Voter’s Registration Drives
Check Your Voter Registration Status
Online Voter Registration in California
Complete list of acceptable forms of voter I.D.’s
Secretary of State’s toll-free Voter Hotline
(800) 345-VOTE (8683)
Finding and contacting your County Elections Office
or call Secretary of State’s toll-free Voter Hotline
(800) 345-VOTE (8683)
Find Your Polling Place
Do you have a criminal conviction? Restore your vote here
California Secretary of State’s website
Find a civil rights attorney
Apply for Medi-Cal and CalFresh online
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