Providers are allowed to engage in voter registration and get out the vote efforts, so long as these activities are done in a non-partisan way that doesn’t favor a particular candidate or political party. In fact, it’s encouraged – organizations that deliver services, shelter, and affordable housing to people experiencing homelessness are often in the best position to help clients cast their ballots.
With so many impediments to civic engagement after losing one’s home, voter participation is disproportionately low among unsheltered people and residents of emergency shelters. Following a few simple steps, providers can encourage the people they serve to make their voices heard.
Beginning Voter Engagement
The Alliance has developed several resources for field partners which can be found on the Every One Votes webpage. This site includes online webinar resources, a toolkit that explains key facts about voter registration and nonpartisan turnout, and practical suggestions about supporting your clients’ right to vote.
Voter engagement can be viewed as a service, much like the many other ways your organization assists people in need. Without your help, eligible voters who are homeless are unlikely to participate. For example, current voters may need help updating their information if they’ve been displaced from the address on file at the county clerk or registrar’s office. Engaging clients who aren’t registered to vote can be as simple as adding a few questions to regular check-ins or during the intake process:
- Would you like information about voting?
- Are you registered to vote?
- Would you like assistance with registering to vote?
For providers that operate shelters, consider posting signs around the building and passing out voter information along with the food or other items you may be distributing. Schedule discussions about the causes of homelessness in your community and remind your clients that their vote matters in elections.
Why Does Voting Matter for People Experiencing Homelessness?
Just as case work and counseling can provide avenues for personal growth in homeless programs, voter participation and community engagement help people get stronger together. Homelessness itself often feels like a process of losing one’s voice. So much of daily life becomes determined by what’s allowed, instead of making decisions for oneself: Which streets or empty lots are available to find some rest without fear of harassment or arrest? What’s for dinner at the soup kitchen? Who are you bunking next to at the shelter? What time do the lights go off and when does everyone have to leave in the morning? Voting is an opportunity to empower people who have had too many choices taken from them. It is a fundamental right that gives each of us an equal say in our communities and the nation.
Given the uneven risks of who becomes homelessness in America, voting is also a racial justice issue. Registering and educating people experiencing homelessness about voting and the voting process is a way to reduce this racial disparity.
We’ve learned as a sector that shelter isn’t enough if it is disconnected from housing opportunities, or that case management by itself can do more harm than good if it isn’t trauma-informed. In the same way, we need to recognize the importance of civic engagement and lived-experience advocacy in the delivery of homeless services. Each person deserves to be seen as a full member of society with the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else.
The Bigger Picture
Helping someone register to vote or providing rides to the polls on Election Day is a small step to affirming our equality and mutual dependence on one another. It communicates to clients that we see them as whole people and our organizations are committed to giving them power over their situation, however difficult those circumstances may be.
Some may choose not to vote, just as many housed people make this same choice. However, to the extent that residents or clients are dependent on an organization for basic needs like food and shelter, the choice of whether or not to vote shouldn’t be made for them through the lack of opportunity. The price of equal access to the ballot has been too high to deny it from any eligible voter out of neglect or oversight. What’s more, homeless advocates have a special obligation to help those who are poorly served by the status quo to speak up on their own behalf.
Too often, those impacted the most by the decisions or inaction of our elected representatives are the same people who face the greatest barriers to voting. Homelessness is one of our nation’s greatest policy failures. People experiencing homelessness have the most at stake in finding real solutions to this crisis. They deserve the chance to cast their votes this November.