The Potential Voters Everyone Forgets

Homeless voter turnout

In six months, Americans will cast their vote in the 2024 election, but hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness may not get the chance. NEWSWEEK

Six months from now, more than 100 million Americans will cast their vote in the general election, but hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness may not get the chance to exercise that right due to socioeconomic barriers.

On a single night in 2023, there were about 653,100 homeless people in the U.S., which is around 20 in every 10,000 residents, according to the 2023 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress written by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office of Community Planning and Development.

It is unclear how many of those experiencing homelessness are eligible to vote and how many actually do vote. However, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, roughly one in 10 people without homes vote in a typical election year.

Data is scarce when it comes to voter eligibility and voter turnout numbers among homeless people. When Newsweek reached out to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), it said there is no federal data on such figures.

Barriers to Voting

There are multiple physical and even mental barriers facing those without homes, which can result in them not getting to the polls.

The first question people may ask is how do people experiencing homelessness register to vote if they do not have a home address?

Homeless people can use a shelter address or even a street corner or park that they inhabit as their home address on their registration form. They can register and vote in all 50 states, so those interested in voting can reach out to their local election officials or homeless shelter for more information.

Filling out a voter registration form, however, is only the first hurdle.

Dave Giffen, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, told Newsweek via video call, “The shelter in which a homeless person is assigned might be in a completely different borough from the polling site where they had registered to vote.”

Giffen said finding the time to participate in civic processes while having the “full-time job” of being homeless is another restraint. “I don’t think there’s any harder or busier job than being homeless and trying to overcome homelessness,” he said.

Besides the physical barriers, Giffen touched on the mental and emotional hurdles to voting.

“When you’re economically disenfranchised, perhaps socially disenfranchised, it’s hard not to feel politically disenfranchised as well,” Giffen said. “So, there’s that feeling that the system is not friendly to you, it’s throwing up obstacles to your attempts to participate in the civic processes and for a lot of people that just means that they don’t exercise their right to vote.”

Cathy Alderman, chief communications and public policy officer of Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, echoed Giffen’s transportation concerns, telling Newsweek via telephone that people without housing might not have transportation to get to the polling sites or even know where they poll are.

She said that there could be barriers to both in-person and mail-in ballot voting that could lead to underrepresentation of people without homes in the voting process.

“I think we have seen in some instances ballots that come to shelters or come to our offices and don’t actually get picked up by the people who they’re intended to be delivered to, and that can lead to some underrepresentation as well,” Alderman said.

Who Are Those Experiencing Homelessness?

Those who identify as Black, African American or African make up 37 percent of all people in the U.S. without housing and 50 percent of homeless families with children, according to the 2023 HUD report. From 2022 to 2023, a 40 percent increase was seen in homeless people who identify as Asian or Asian American and a 28 percent jump in those who identify as Hispanic or Latinx. In the same time period, people without homes who identified as American Indian, Alaska Native or Indigenous rose by roughly 18 percent to 19 percent.

“We know that the population of people experiencing homelessness [is] absolutely overrepresented by members of the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] community,” Alderman said. “And those are also populations that have historically been, and systematically, excluded from voting in many instances.”

She added: “I think it’s really important to keep that in mind when you think about voter registration programs and when you think about voter engagement and outreach efforts, you have to be intentional about the people that you’re reaching out to in order to kind of right the wrongs of the past.”

Unaccompanied youth are also represented in the population experiencing homelessness. On a single night in 2023, over 34,700 people younger than 25 were without homes and alone, according to the HUD report.

Fred Ali, CEO of Covenant House California told Newsweek via video call, “We make every attempt at Covenant House to introduce voting to our young people, provide them background on elections and make it easy for them to vote. But the larger population is probably going to be underrepresented in an election.”

Ali continued: “Young people in general, but certainly unhoused young people, don’t oftentimes have the opportunity to participate in activities that have a lot to do with their lives and so this is a wonderful opportunity for them to find their voice, become engaged in a meaningful way in society.”

While Ali said he was unsure about the impact that young homeless people voting could have on a national election, he added that it holds “impact to the individual.”

A Lack of Information

Another hurdle to voting is simply a lack of information about the process, which is where nonprofits, like the ones mentioned in this article, can help.

“One of the biggest barriers is lack of access to information,” Ali explained. “If I want to vote, where would I go? And if I want to register to vote, how do I do that? And if I don’t have a place to stay or a regular place to stay, does that immediately disqualify me?”

Lindsey Owen, executive director of Disability Rights Vermont, told Newsweek via telephone, “For many folks experiencing homelessness in addition to having other identities like being a person with a disability, being a person from the BIPOC community, there’s a lack of understanding … about what people have the right to do.”

According to the 2023 HUD report, about 31 percent of people without housing have experienced a chronic pattern of homelessness, which means that they experienced it for extended periods of time and have a disability.

Owen said there is “not a lot of effort other than from some community organizations like Disability Rights Vermont going out there and providing this type of education and support and really trying to empower people who are in these very vulnerable populations to be heard and to try and help them be heard by getting them ballots and really reaching out to people who are otherwise feeling pretty helpless and hopeless, I would imagine.”

The American Experience

Sean Read, vice president of regional programs for Friendship Place in Washington, D.C., spoke to why it is important for people experiencing homelessness to be able to exercise their right to vote.

“If the individual is eligible to vote, that is part of the American experience. And just because an individual may or may not have a fixed address or a place of their own, doesn’t mean that they’re any less an American,” Read told Newsweek via telephone. “The most important piece is that it gives them the sense of wholeness of the American experience.”

Giffen, from the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, stressed that people without housing want to exercise their right to vote.

“Just because you’re without a home for some period in your life doesn’t mean that you’re not politically savvy and aware of the policies and want to do something about them,” he said.

A spokesperson for USICH told Newsweek via email: “People experiencing homelessness must be meaningfully included in policymaking, and policymaking starts at the polls with the people we elect. Many of the most effective and most equitable solutions for homelessness, such as Housing First, came from listening to the people who have lived without a home.

“USICH released step-by-step voting guides for people experiencing homelessness, and we encourage homeless service providers to help them navigate the voting rules and election misinformation that all too often keep them from having their voices heard.”

About the writer

Rachel Dobkin is a Newsweek reporter based in New York. Her focus is reporting on politics. Rachel joined Newsweek in October 2023. She is a graduate of The State University of New York at Oneonta. You can get in touch with Rachel by emailing r.dobkin@newsweek.com.


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