Homeless Struggle with Voter Registration

By Amanda Garibay and Ren Busch |  @RedLineProject | Posted: Friday, May 8, 2020

For many homeless Americans, registering to vote can be a struggle. Although the homeless can vote in all 50 states, there are still obstacles between them and the voting booth.

According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, identification is not necessary if a homeless voter has already registered in person at a polling location. 

However, many homeless people cannot register in person, which leaves them with the option of registering by mail. But when registering by mail, identification is required in order to be counted.

Niya Kelly, the state legislative director and policy specialist at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said that providing identification when registering to vote can be an obstacle for those who are homeless because it is common not to have any identification on hand.

"There are different reasons that people experience homelessness, including incarceration, experiencing domestic violence and other things of that nature," Kelly said. "They may have lost their identification, they may have had it stolen from them, or if they have lived in an encampment, then they may have had a police sweep and had their ID and other belongings taken from them."

Experts say there are many common misconceptions when it comes to homeless voting. Permanent addresses are often seen as a reason as to why many believe homeless voters do not have voting rights. 

Kelly said the homeless do not need a permanent address in order to register to vote. 

"If someone is living at a homeless shelter and would like to register to vote that they would be able to use the shelters' or drop-in shelters' address," Kelly said. "Making sure they could use that address to exercise their right as an American."

"We are always encouraging people who are experiencing homelessness to vote early," Kelly added. "So that if there is an issue, that they can get it resolved prior to Election Day."

Tracking the number of homeless voters is difficult, not just in Illinois but nationally. The Chicago Board of Elections does not keep statistical data on the registered homeless voter demographic, according to communications spokesperson Jim Allen.

Kelly said that although she does not have any statistical data on the registered homeless voter demographic, she believes that the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is working hard on making sure homeless voters feel enfranchised.

“I don’t have any data on hand,” she said. “But I do believe our outreach program has definitely assisted in making sure that people have access to the right to vote.”

In 2012, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimated about 10% of the homeless population are registered to vote. It’s one of the few national statistics available on homeless voters.

Ideally, the percentage would increase over the years, but voting requirements can make registering to vote harder for those without proper documentation or feelings of  disenfranchisement. 

Map: Polling places near homeless shelters.

A report from the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development's Annual Homeless Assessment says that in 2019, nearly 568,000 people were homeless in the United States. According to the report, almost two-thirds were staying in sheltered locations, and more than one-third were on the street, in abandoned buildings, or living under viaducts.

Former Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders vowed during his campaign that he would end homelessness with a $2.5 trillion plan. Sanders' plan called for creating 7.4 million affordable housing units. 

Additionally, the overall number of homeless has increased nationwide by 3 percent between 2018 to 2019, or 14,885 more homeless individuals.

On top of the additional voting restrictions, this year has proven so far to be difficult in terms of being able to vote. With the rising issue of COVID-19, states were beginning to shut down and place stay-at-home orders. The fear of contracting the virus or carrying it placed new pressure on voters during the primaries, which were held on March 17 in Illinois.

Kelly said the COVID-19 pandemic affected the Illinois primary election, as the primary was held on March 17, and the stay-at-home was implemented on March 21.

"The stay-at-home order did not come down until the Friday after the primary election. There were only some issues as far as polling places changing," Kelly said. "Polling places that were usually held at nursing facilities were moved for obvious reasons. I think there were issues all across the board, around making sure folks weren't feeling disenfranchised because of fear or because of access."

COVID-19 Impact

The homeless are especially being affected by COVID-19 spreading throughout the United States because many cannot abide by the stay-at-home orders put in place by state governors. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke at an April 13 press conference about plans for expanding spaces and services for the homeless so that they have protection against the pandemic. 

"We continue to build on those efforts through an additional partnership with the Salvation Army to open temporary shelter spaces with a total of 699 beds, including facilities dedicated to women and children," Lightfoot said, providing an update to the plans of protecting the homeless.

Medical professionals have become more mobilized in Chicago to also assist at these shelters with symptom screening. More than 25,000 pieces of protective equipment have been provided to shelter residents and staff..

Feeling Disenfranchised

Often the battle of misconceptions and self-doubt leaves those who are homeless feeling disenfranchised. This feeling of disenfranchisement may stem from being incarcerated, being a minority in America, not owning a home, or any other personal obstacle. 

 "It is a battle of misconceptions," Kelly said. "One of my jobs is to make sure folks feel franchised through the election process."

Too often, many individuals feel as though their vote does not matter, and their voices will never be heard by the political system, simply because they are homeless.

Archives: Homeless want voices heard on election day

"We go out to shelters and encampments to register people to vote," she said. "It's also an opportunity to spread that information. People don't know that they have that opportunity to vote and as a citizen of the city Chicago, you have the right to vote. We know that it's harder if you're experiencing homelessness because there are so many barriers that are put in your way of getting to a polling place but if there is any way we could assist, we definitely do."

Having the homeless register to vote is essential to social change within our society. Eliminating strict voting registration barriers and educating homeless voters on their rights allows them to have a voice, like any other American citizen, on human rights issues and economic change. 

Kelly added that the feeling of stepping into a voting booth can be empowering. She encouraged those who are homeless to exercise their right as an American and reminds them they have a say in the political system, as well as having the power to hold politicians accountable for what they represent.

"I see power and ownership within that [voting]," Kelly said. "For people experiencing homelessness, a lot of times when they come down to Springfield, in my work I'm in Springfield … working with legislators. I always have to tell them that these people [politicians] are normal people and they are here for you. They are here to hear your concerns."

Kelly advocates on issues related to homeless youth and state budgetary issues associated with the homeless and those who are at risk, in order to give those who are impacted by social issues a voice.

"I do this work for my mother, my grandfather, and for the people I work with every day," Kelly said. "Because if not… who?"

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