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Homeless and Hopeless: America’s Silenced Voting Problem

Criminally underserved and unheard by the public, the homeless population in the United States is one of the most marginalized groups in recent history. People experiencing homelessness lack access to basic care and resources meant to be universal human rights, and because of the inaccessible nature of voter registration, they are unable to do anything about it. Even in Rhode Island, one of the only states to enact a Homeless Bill of Rights, there is a lack of information and accessibility regarding voter identification requirements and resources. During the 2020 election, pre-existing problems were only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, in which  many states chose to largely rely on mail vote ballots, adding another item to the long list of obstacles that lie between people experiencing homelessness and voting. 

The 2020 general election simply proved how little people care about this section of society: despite the countless voter turnout efforts started by organizations on the left and right across the country, very few were focused on the significant homeless population, further extenuating the cycle of disenfranchisement that is haunting the community. One of the few, Pathways to Housing, helped register members of the community during the election, but their efforts were hampered by the barriers of not having an address or valid identification documents. 

The United States, despite its relatively low voter turnout compared to other similarly developed nations, had a turnout rate of over 67 percent in the 2020 election for the general public. However, only 10 percent of the homeless population, which accounts for more than 500,000 people, were even registered to vote. For the US to truly live up to its democratic ideals, and for political parties to claim any semblance of caring about equity and equality, there must be a greater movement to stop the systematic disenfranchisement of the homeless and to allow them to fully exercise the rights and privileges of their citizenship. 

Like every other aspect of American society, the issue of homelessness can not be separated from the political ambitions of policymakers who exacerbate these issues. Homelessness is strongly concentrated in urban areas, often in blue-leaning states, as exemplified by Los Angeles and New York City, where one in five homeless people lived in 2018. While there are provisions that allow those experiencing homelessness to vote in all 50 states, technicalities in state laws create a lack of consistency that only further causes confusion and lack of interest in the system. So while there are laws that support homeless voting, the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness do not vote; voter identification laws in 36 states as well as the many other obstacles that people face when trying to obtain the appropriate documents has led to the common phrase: “You need an ID to get an ID.” 

The demographics of people experiencing homelessness highlight the problematic disenfranchisement of this group. Policymakers in many Southern states have passed identification laws under the guise of stopping election fraud, but studies have shown that election fraud occurs less than once in a thousand cases; furthermore, these laws have led to the disproportionate voter suppression of minority and previously disenfranchised voices, as they have since their inception

Because states are responsible for creating voter laws within their borders, standards of identification vary across the country, creating a system ripe for abuse and exploitation. The issue of identification, which is already a deeply contentious topic and one irrevocably tied with racism, is exacerbated when referring to the homeless community. Contrary to popular opinion, the most pressing obstacle for registering to vote for persons experiencing homelessness is not the issue of writing down a street address but rather the difficulty in obtaining a valid form of identification. 

Furthermore, the disenfranchisement of the homeless cannot be divorced from racism against the minority groups that comprise it. Pacific Islanders and Native Americans are the most likely to be homeless, followed by Black and Latino people, all of whom are at greater risk of apathy from the government than white Americans. Additionally, many persons experiencing homelessness are disabled or suffering from mental illnesses, further marginalizing groups that are constantly demonized by popular society. The COVID-19 pandemic has further made explicit the health inequities that undercut homeless populations. A large percentage of those experiencing homelessness  come from historically underprivileged groups: their disenfranchisement is simply a continuation of the historical inequality that cuts through the US. 

Not only are people experiencing homelessness mistreated by the public and their government, but in facing exceptional barriers to voting, they are also unable to exercise an essential right as citizens of the United States. Voting is meant to be the primary means of political participation in this country — the one guarantee of having individual voices influence policy and politics — but these citizens are unable to participate. This begs the question: how are people meant to lift themselves out of poverty and homelessness if they are being systematically blocked from having their voices heard? 

“I don’t believe in voter apathy. I believe in voter despair, because most of those communities, they are not apathetic. They care. They just don’t think they can do anything about it,” Stacey Abrams, the founder and leader of Fair Fight Georgia, said. 

Even within the general public, there are many who do not vote, often citing the pointlessness of voting as their main motivation for not participating. The general sense of dissatisfaction and distance from politics resonates throughout the population, a feeling that is even more pronounced in homeless communities. For those experiencing homelessness, who have experienced firsthand a failure of  the government and its services, this distrust is not surprising. 

“The biggest barriers to voting [for those experiencing homelessness] mirrors the problems of democratic participation in society at large, where people don’t have the proper information, which is compounded for people experiencing homelessness, who oftentimes already have marginalized identities, which only further sidelines them from participating in the system,” Gabe Mernoff ‘22.5, member of Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE). 

The 2020 general election catalyzed many efforts for getting out the vote, increasing turnout amongst groups that historically stay away from the ballot, particularly minorities and young people. However, almost none of these efforts included homeless people in their mission. While the homeless comprise a smaller share of the electorate, these movements have a duty to include them in their efforts, in order to truly exemplify the democratic ideals of universal suffrage and participation. Ultimately, the issue of political disenfranchisement of the homeless population cannot be divorced from the general problem of homelessness. A widespread informational campaign, spearheaded by both the government and activist organizations, with facts and details about voting requirements and resources, would help combat the major disinformation spread within the community; this would target the lack of awareness regarding voting for those experiencing homelessness, such as the ability to write down the addresses of homeless shelters on voter registration forms. Current efforts to get the vote out, such as Fair Fight, have been very successful in bringing previously unregistered voters to the polls.Fair Fight’s particular efforts have lead to major results, such as the two Democratic Senate wins in Georgia this January; these successes can and should be translated to the homeless community as well. Breaking down the general barriers to democratic participation, which are exacerbated when it comes to poor and minority communities, would be a further solution to this issue of lack of voting for those experiencing homelessness, as this would help alleviate the pressures of these compounding marginalized identities. However, the greatest solution of all would be to directly challenge homelessness head-on, bringing about systematic change rather than short-term fixes.

Photo: Original Illustration by Rosalia Mejia