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Voting While Homeless Poses Challenges Ahead of the US Election

By Carey L. Biron

WASHINGTON, Oct 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Christina Giles lives in a homeless encampment just north of the US Capitol, and like many people, she is excited to cast her ballot in the nation's election.

But registering to vote can pose a quandary for people like Giles who have no fixed address, and some may fear they cannot vote at all — a scenario that advocates have tried to address with a concerted get-out-the-vote push among people experiencing homelessness.

Outreach efforts made it easy to register, Giles explained. "I'm impressed with 2020," she said.

People without fixed homes can in fact vote, but many don't know that, said Briana Perez-Brennan, an outreach specialist with Pathways to Housing DC, a Washington nonprofit that this year ran its first effort to help homeless people vote.

"The voter registration form asks for a home address or a mailing address, and for a lot of folks, that was the point where they would walk away, assuming they can't register," she said. "There's a very limited view of what a home is, and that excludes a lot of people."

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In Washington, for example, she said local officials have determined that the address for a social service provider or shelter could be used.

Of the more than 100 people she and colleagues at Pathways have registered in recent months, some had never voted, while others had not done so in years, she said.

"People experiencing homelessness are often kept out of [political] conversations," said Perez-Brennan.

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Washington recorded nearly 10,000 people experiencing homelessness during an annual count in January, the most recent data available, and it's unclear how that number may have changed in the pandemic.

Perez-Brennan said she has seen the local homeless population grow.

Nationally, advocates worry that evictions could affect upwards of 40 million people by the end of the year.

There is little data on voting among homeless populations, but research from the University of Southern California has suggested a voting rate as low as 10%.

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Yet political participation is key to ensuring that issues important to people experiencing homelessness or people in unstable housing are acknowledged, said Megan Hustings, managing director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

"It's so important that people who are experiencing homelessness take part in that process," she said. "Most mainstream get-out-the-vote efforts don't realize how difficult it can be to access your vote if you don't have an address."

The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to more mail-in and absentee voting options that people experiencing homelessness can use, she said.

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But people who use a shelter as an address do not always get their mail — the means of getting their absentee ballot — on a regular basis, she said.

The pandemic has forced many shelters to reduce their hours or even close, making mail pickups even harder, she said.

Some local laws allow people to register their address as a park bench or an intersection, as does a federal form accepted in most states, said Eric Tars, legal director at the National Homelessness Law Center.

But locations that require identification to vote can complicate the process, he said.

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People who are homeless may not be able to obtain IDs or may lose them, he said.

"ID requirements are a barrier," he said.

Tars and his colleagues turned to voting rights this year for the first time in several years, collaborating with the National Coalition for the Homeless and TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation's legal pro bono network, to create a guide on local voting rights and requirements across the country.

The objective was to answer key questions for those who experience chronic homelessness and those who are newly homeless due to the pandemic, Tars said.

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"If I lose my home after the registration deadline, can I still vote? Or if this person is living doubled up or in a motel, can they use that address to vote? Or if they're on the street or living in a car, how do they register?"

For people on Washington's streets, getting answers to such questions have provided them with a sense of being included in the political process.

"Initially, a lot of people said, 'My vote doesn't matter,'" said Perez-Brennan. "But we had this space to talk, and some did change their minds to say: 'I do have political power. Let's do this.'"

Pathways to Housing DC now plans to include voter registration as part of its standard intake process with clients.