For Homeless People In The Nation’s Capital, Voting Is Often A Struggle

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/ DEREK HATFIELD
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/ DEREK HATFIELD

ThinkProgress has dedicated a portion of our coverage on Wednesday, June 29th to reporting on the state of homelessness in Washington, D.C. This story is part of that series.

When Ken Martin went to the polls back in 2008, he made sure to bring along his two kids — he wanted to share the moment with them as he cast his ballot for the first black president.

“They were proud of that experience,” Martin said.

Martin was “couch-homeless” then, crashing with a friend but not paying rent. He’s been trying for years — without success — to find stable housing so he can share custody of his 13-year-old daughter.

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The 62-year-old has stayed committed to exercising his voting rights throughout that tumultuous time, in part because he sees support for the homeless population falling short. “People aren’t doing their jobs,” Martin said. “The least I can do is stand up and be counted.”

But he didn’t vote in D.C.’s primary a few weeks ago, and he didn’t try. He lost his ID card at a department store earlier this year, and felt that without his ID he wouldn’t be able to vote.

Although voter IDs are not technically required in order to vote in D.C., Martin says that every time he’s voted over the past several decades he’s always been asked to show some form of identification. Certain polling facilities in D.C. request to see an ID before the person can enter the building. The D.C. Board of Elections (BOE) told ThinkProgress that they work with these locations to make sure they are accessible as possible to people — like the homeless — who may not have an ID.

At The Current Rate, The U.S. Won’t End Homelessness For Another 40 YearsEconomy by CREDIT: Shutterstock The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2015 report on homelessness in…thinkprogress.org“We try to work with them and let them know that for election days they should not require IDs from voters,” said BOE election program specialist Margarita Mikhaylova. During D.C.’s primary a few weeks ago, they created a separate entrance at the Reeves Center for people without any identification. Mikhaylova said that they have also experimented with other measures, such as alerting security that they do not need to require voter IDs for people to enter the building and working out separate agreements with those buildings.

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The more than 8,000 homeless people in the nation’s capital face a particular set of challenges on Election Day when trying to cast their vote. These people may have trouble getting transportation to the polls, struggles over proper IDs, and challenges with taking time off work. These higher barriers to voting can cut people off from the civic process.

“In general, folks that are homeless don’t really feel engaged in our political process,” Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said. “The people who have the time to be engaged are generally those who have the income and the flexibilities of their schedules.”

Activists in the District are pushing back against that disengagement. So Others Might Eat (S.O.M.E.) is best known for its core work providing traditional charitable services to the city’s massive homeless population. But for about seven years now, S.O.M.E. has also mounted voter registration drives for homeless and low-income individuals.

“It’s always this positive opportunity to help people speak up for themselves, to make their own decisions, and influence the world they live in,” Masliansky said.

[Voting] is a fundamental right, and that should not be taken away just because one doesn’t have an address.

When registering to vote, people who are homeless in D.C. are not required have to list a traditional residence on their form for their home address. Instead, they can write down a street corner where they typically spend the night or a shelter they frequent.

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“[Voting] is a fundamental right, and that should not be taken away just because one doesn’t have an address,” said Maria Foscarinis, the founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “It’s especially important for homeless people [to vote] because this is a group of people that is especially marginalized and really needs to have a say in the political process.”

According to the US Census Bureau, fewer than half of people with incomes below $20,000 were registered to vote in the 2014 election, and only a quarter of that income group actually voted. Three out of four Americans with incomes over $100,000 were registered that year, and more than half of that wealthier slice of the country voted in the midterms.

“If we could demonstrate that low-income renters are a voting bloc, we can see that these issues will have a higher profile in Congress,” said Joey Lindstrom, the senior organizer for housing advocacy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

According to a report by the American National Elections Studies, nonvoters support increased government services and spending, guaranteeing jobs, reducing inequality, and spending on the poor by an average of 17 points more than voters do. Poor nonvoters supported these measures by an average of 50 points more than rich voters did.

Ernestine Young, a 65-year old woman who is currently in transitional housing, used to be one of these nonvoters. “One time I didn’t take [elections] too seriously,” she said. Now, though, she believes “that one vote can make so much difference.”

One vote can make so much difference.

But when she went out to vote during the primaries in D.C., she found out she went to the wrong polling location — she had just changed her address due to being in transitional housing.

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Stories like that discourage Masliansky’s clients, she said. One of the biggest obstacles to homeless people voting is “mostly worry that in moving from one place to another … they might not be sure where they’re supposed to vote or when was the last time they did vote.”

After missing the primaries, Young said she’s determined to vote in November.

“Yes, I will,” she said. “God willing, I will.”

Rachel Cain is an intern at ThinkProgress.