The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Voting is a challenge for the homeless. Advocates are trying to make it easier.

A booth set up by Pathways for Housing DC earlier this month in Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Tracy Lincoln doesn’t know exactly when she left her native Houston — it’s been months, she says — but she knows she wanted to “come and see the world.”

She landed at a homeless shelter in D.C., where she’s contemplating her next move. Maybe she will try Utah, she says.

But amid her travels, she needs to vote. She already was registered elsewhere but came to D.C.’s Downtown Day Services Center for the homeless to switch her registration to the nation’s capital. Though she doesn’t have a preferred candidate — “you don’t know what they’re like until they get there,” she says — not voting is not an option.

“That’s how you make changes,” she said. “You have to hold people accountable.”

While advocates are registering people to vote in a polarizing election held during a pandemic, they are also registering a population traumatized by, in some cases, years on the streets. It’s these barriers to voting that Pathways to Housing DC, which has registered more than 60 voters since launching the voter drive last month, is trying to overcome.

Some are battling mental illness and addiction. Others are illiterate — or simply might not have a pair of reading glasses they need to fill out a form.

“Our entire mission and model is based on listening to the people we serve. Listening is not always there at the larger societal level,” said Christy Respress, the Pathways executive director. “We feel there is no better way to rectify that than to register people to vote — educate them, let them know that their vote is their voice.”

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Standing outside the homeless center near 14th Street and New York Avenue NW, Lincoln scrutinized D.C.’s voter registration form, painstakingly filling it out as a staffer from Pathways stood nearby. If Lincoln, who’s hard of hearing, had questions, the staffer would remove her mask to answer them so Lincoln could read her lips.

Some questions on the form could be intimidating to someone without a place to stay. Lincoln doesn’t have a permanent address, but the form asks for the “address where you live” and the “address where you get your mail.” It also asks would-be voters about their citizenship.

Megan Hustings, managing director of the nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless, said her organization has worked to register homeless people to vote since the 1990s. The obstacles are immense not just for its clients, but for anyone living in poverty, she said.

Some states might require identification like Social Security cards or driver’s licenses — documentation homeless people may not have, or that may be too expensive for those living on the street to acquire.

If cost or access to identification isn’t a problem, lifestyle can be. People living outdoors “lose stuff all the time,” Hustings said. When a homeless encampment is cleared, she said, officials might dispose of belongings without preserving important paperwork.

Other barriers are psychological. Homeless people may be embarrassed about their ignorance of the process and might not know their polling place or be familiar with candidates and political parties.

Organizations like Pathways can provide an address for people to receive mail — crucial this fall, when the D.C. Board of Elections will mail every registered voter a ballot — but advocates worry the pandemic has compounded voting problems.

“I’m concerned with people losing housing because of the pandemic,” Hustings said. “In that crisis, voting is not high on your list of priorities.”

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It’s not clear how many homeless people vote, but census data shows most people with lower incomes don’t.

In the 2018 midterm election, 31 percent of people nationwide living in a family with income of less than $10,000 a year cast a ballot, compared with 68 percent of those with a family income above $150,000. Eleven percent of those in the lower-income group said they didn’t vote because they had transportation problems, compared with 0.3 percent of those in the higher-income group.

Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the California-based Western Center on Law and Poverty, said voting is a “cultural experience” often denied homeless people.

“It’s really hard to find a politician to stand beside someone homeless and say, ‘This is our neighbor,’ ” she said. “If we still have in most parties an elitism . . . that excludes people who are homeless, that refuses to back their dignity, their humanity, their rights, why would someone who is homeless choose to participate in that process anyway?”

President Trump’s rhetoric on homelessness, which included an offer last year to help California cities clean up homeless camps if they asked “politely,” might make Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden seem a clear winner among those at the Downtown Day Center. His political party also dominates in the District, a city in which Trump earned 4 percent of the vote in 2016.

But homeless voters are like other voters: unpredictable.

Sam Gilliard, a 50-year-old veteran and D.C. native who registered at the Day Center on Friday, said he has been homeless for two years. He lost his job in March when the lumber yard where he was working in Northwest Washington went out of business. He sleeps in a garage and plans to get his ballot delivered to a friend’s house.

Gilliard likes Trump, especially everything the president did “before corona,” he said. He likes that Trump is unfiltered — that he’s not a smooth talker like President Barack Obama.

“He’s not a politician,” Gilliard said. “He shoots from the hip. I like that you’re going to get exactly his thoughts.”

Other registrants, like Allen Williams — a chef who lost his job amid the pandemic and was homeless from 2005 until July — favors Biden.

D.C. pays millions to place homeless in hotels to avoid covid-19. But many rooms are empty. And others need them.

“I’m so fearful of what happens if we don’t have a new candidate in office,” he said. “I believe Biden has the experience and the knowledge. He’s more passionate about the pandemic and the people.”

And there were those who walked away without registering at all. One woman wearing a headscarf read over the registration form for a few minutes, then shook her head and walked away.

Maria Gusman, a benefits specialist at Pathways who was registering voters on a recent day, said it’s easy for some to become discouraged when a voter registration form is in their hand.

“It can be difficult,” she said. “People in politics don’t believe people experiencing homelessness vote. They don’t believe it matters anyway.”

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