Louisville, Kentucky, US – The building housing St John’s Center for Homeless Men in Louisville, Kentucky, still has most of the markings of the Catholic Church it once was. The vibrant, stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Bible line the building’s walls. Inside, a crucifix towers overhead. But perhaps the most long-lasting thing is the spirit of the building that in 1855 sheltered Irish and German Catholics targeted during and after the Election Day in anti-immigrant riots known as “Bloody Monday“.
Now, instead of churchgoers and immigrants, the building acts as a haven for dozens of homeless men. Where pews once sat are long folding tables where the centre’s clients play crossword puzzles, read or simply relax. Other men sit in chairs spaced several feet apart and watch the news. Some wait in line to add their names to a list for a hot shower. Volunteers take down information about where each man stayed the night before. Offices and meeting spaces line the big room. And off to one side are four signs that serve as a gentle reminder of November’s general election and provide information on how to register to vote.
“It’s important [to vote] because, in a way, it helps out my population’s living situation according to who is in office,” says Dwayne, a client who is helping out with the shower waiting list, not far from the election signs.
But he still has to figure out the logistics. “I still have to register,” the 53-year-old tells Al Jazeera. Dwayne usually stays in a nearby shelter and visits St John’s regularly, but his mailing address is his sister’s home in a different part of town. While he usually only gets his mail once a month, or when his sister calls and tells him there is too much, he is excited to learn that he could vote by mail this time around.
Like shelters, community centres and organisations for unhoused people across the United States, St John’s is working hard to ensure Dwayne and others in similar situations are able to vote in November’s election. But the communities these groups serve must often overcome many barriers – from voter ID laws to access to information and transportation – to get to the polls. And with the coronavirus pandemic hitting unhoused individuals and shelters especially hard, those challenges have only been exacerbated.
‘It’s not that homeless people aren’t aware’
The US government counted 567,715 homeless people on a single night in January 2019. But the actual number of people experiencing homelessness, including those who are temporarily staying with friends or family or are in supportive housing paid for by federal and local homeless funds, is believed to be much higher. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1.4 million people in the US access emergency shelters or transitional housing services each year.
While it is unclear what percentage of unhoused people in the US is eligible to vote, data show that voter turnout is consistently low among low-income groups. Organisations serving homeless people and other low-income groups say that is not because people do not want to vote, but because it is often harder to do so.
“It’s not that homeless people aren’t aware that there’s a really important election on the horizon,” says Paul Boden, the executive director of the California-based Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP).
“It’s technically, physically, how do we get it from desire to participate in the process or desperation to participate in the process to physically being able to do it,” Boden explains.
Nadine, who lives in a subsidised single occupancy room in Massachusetts, agrees. The first time the 62-year-old voted was in 2008, but that was not due to her lack of trying for many years before.
“I have found that voting can be very challenging,” Nadine, who wishes to only go by her first name, tells Al Jazeera. She says she has tried to vote several times, but was always told there was something wrong with her registration.
Since submitting her first ballot, Nadine has become a poll worker, and before the pandemic, often canvassed for different campaigns and worked at phone banks. She has also gone through public policy training at Rosie’s Place, a women’s shelter in Boston.
“When we look at the importance of voting, it goes just beyond the fundamental portion of being your civic duty and being something that matters. It’s really another way for women who are typically not seen to show the world that they still count,” says Filipe Zamborlini, the director of public policy at Rosie’s Place.
Financial and physical barriers
But advocates say that comes with many challenges. Megan Hustings, the managing director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says one of the biggest obstacles to voting for individuals experiencing homelessness is having the correct documents, like driver’s licences, birth certificates or social security cards.
Those documents are sometimes lost, or often stolen, Hustings says. “Not everybody has [their documents] and then to replace them, it’s a burden financially and timewise,” she explains. Getting a replacement birth certificate, for example, can cost more than $30 in some states. While it is free to get a replacement social security card, it is necessary to provide a document like a birth certificate or passport, to prove citizenship and identity.
“It’s hard for those of us who have a home and have the resources [to] have time to take off work, [but] it’s an even more arduous process if you don’t have the funds, if you don’t have all the paperwork you need,” she adds. “Even just losing a driver’s licence can kind of snowball into not being able to register to vote or even access other community resources.”
At least 35 states require or request that voters show some kind of photo identification at the polls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. At least six of these states require an approved, government-issued photo ID.
For those who have the right documents, getting to the polls can be a task in itself. Advocates say the closure of hundreds of polling stations across the US, especially in the southern part of the country, in recent years has disproportionately affected low-income individuals, including those experiencing homelessness. This is especially true in Texas, where officials have closed more polling stations – at least 750 since 2013 – than in any other state, according to The Leadership Conference Education Fund, an organisation promoting civil and human rights.
“We know that those voting stations, more likely than not, are being taken out of low-income areas that are also communities of colour, which also happened to be neighbourhoods, especially in our urban neighbourhoods, where we have [homeless] encampments,” says Nick Thompson, the statewide initiatives director for the Texas Homeless Network.
“So, it could be that the polling station they would otherwise go to may not be walking distance and then you have a transportation barrier,” Thompson adds.
Many organisations usually offer public transportation tickets and/or help organising rides to polling stations, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, such services have been limited or stopped altogether.
Extra effort needed during pandemic
The reduction of services has also had major implications for homeless people in states offering absentee or mail-in voting.
“The biggest challenge for unhoused people is the places that you used to be able to access as a mailing address [like] drop-in centres or shelters or food programmes that would let people receive mail … with COVID, they’ve all cut way to hell back,” says WRAP’s Boden. “So, it’s really gonna take – and this is true about how unhoused people voting in general – a lot of effort [to vote] and you got to really want to do it.”
Some states allow voters without a residential address to use an identifiable place such as a cross-street or park near to where they are staying to register to vote, but individuals must still provide a mailing address in order to receive their election materials.
That is where shelters like St John’s in Kentucky are stepping in. Even though it has had to limit many of its services due to the pandemic, its clients can still receive mail at the centre.
On Wednesday, the centre’s staff and volunteers will take part in a targeted effort to help clients register to vote if they wish to do so.
“We will do a lot of one-on-one meetings with the guys to see if they’re registered and check in with them,” says Mary Luke Noonan, the associate director of St John’s Center for Homeless Men.
“Typically, we would love to do this in a big group setting, but we can’t do that with social distancing,” Noonan tells Al Jazeera. “The general rapport building that we try to do on a daily basis anyway feels a little more heightened and a little more important with election season.”
Noonan says the community at St John’s is very politically active. “There’s a lot of political discussions that stem from having the news on [at the centre],” she says. “And when we shift the dialogue to ‘OK, yes, you’re excited’, or ‘yes, you’re agitated.’ or, ‘you know, regardless of who you want to vote for … how can we help you make the next step?’ There does seem to be some excitement around empowering each individual person.”
Charles*, who is in his 70s, has come to St John’s regularly since his home burned down several months ago. He is angry about the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Rattling off a list of issues – from potential Russian interference to the controversy over changes to the US Postal Service – affecting this year’s election, Charles says that while he believes the process is “rigged”, he still plans to vote “just to soothe” himself. But he will not take any chances.
“I don’t want to vote by mail,” he says, adding that he will likely cast his ballot in person on Election Day to make sure his vote against Trump is counted.
*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s identity