[Editor's Note: Hoodline is participating in today's SF Homeless Project, in which more than 70 area publications are each covering homelessness issues in their own ways.
While we already write about these issues often, we hope that our stories today will add more neighborhood context to this very complicated topic, and to the great work being published elsewhere. You can read more about the project here.]
“Last year was the first time that I voted in my life,” said Billy, a middle-age man who has spent the majority of his life in jail. “I have a current address, in an SRO, but I don’t really consider this permanent housing.”
Billy participated in the primary elections that took place earlier this month. “In a way, it’s kind of like a goal, because I’m finally marked as a citizen and not as a felon.” When asked what issues he’ll be paying attention to in November, Billy said that “homelessness is a priority. I’m going to vote on that.”
In light of the recent "Promotion of Safe and Open Sidewalks" initiative, not to mention this week’s media blitz, the majority of voters in San Francisco will be well-versed in the politicized complexities of homelessness come November. However, many may be unaware that at the center of this swirling maelstrom of city ordinances and million dollar budgets and housing shortages, stand (sit, or lie) approximately 6,686... wait for it... voters.
Yes, in San Francisco, individuals without a permanent address (i.e. people experiencing homelessness) can register to vote. All they need is a valid street corner to establish their voting precinct and a P.O. box to serve as their mailing address.
“We find homeless people to be some of the most politically and informed members of our community,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness. “They can and do vote; they simply need a cross street to precinct and then a mailing address.”
To put that into perspective, San Francisco learned last week that for the first time in the state Senate primary, candidate Jane Kim pulled ahead of fellow supervisor and candidate Scott Wiener by 0.3 percent (116,289 votes to 115,916 votes). Although some final votes remained to be counted, the margin separating the two candidates stood at 373 voters, or 18 times fewer people than there are estimated to be homeless individuals in our city.
“The Department of Elections registers people who are homeless just as we register other eligible voters,” said Jill Fox, the San Francisco Department of Elections outreach manager. “The Department of Elections Outreach staff regularly attend Project Homeless Connect and other venues where people who are homeless or in housing transition can register to vote.”
According to the Department of Elections, there are 677 active San Francisco voters who list cross streets rather than a street address as their residential address on their voter registration. Of those, 97 have registered to vote in 2016.
Fox said that instructions about registering individuals who are experiencing homelessness or transitional housing are included in the department’s voter registration instructions that are provided to campaigns, candidates, and community groups that register voters.
One such community group is the Adult Education Center — and homeless shelters — of Episcopal Community Services, an organization that helps homeless and very low-income individuals obtain essential services primarily in the city’s Tenderloin, SoMa and Civic Center neighborhoods. Katherine Powell is an instructor at the Adult Education Center, and she teaches literacy classes and adult secondary education classes. In fact, Billy is one of her GED students.
In her role, Powell liaises with the city’s Department of Elections. “I’ve arranged that before each election that we have, someone comes from the department and does a really great presentation and brings registration materials. We also provide on-going voter education and on-going, on-site registration for people.”
Powell’s adult students are diverse, ranging in age from 22- to 72-years-old and ranging in housing from SROs to shelters to on the streets. Like Friedenbach, Powell is impressed by this demographic’s eagerness to participate in the political process. “It’s interesting to me,” said Powell. “If you think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the theory is you gotta take care of the main needs before you can think about yourself as part of the larger society. But these people don’t have those basic needs taken care of well yet they’re driven to pursue their education and to participate in society.”
According to Powell, her adult students are very much thinking about these upcoming elections in November. “It impacts their lives. We sit down with them and go over the registration form and fill things out with. There are things that we want to share with them like where to vote and what’s coming up and what’s going to be on the ballot.” Powell noted that she and her colleagues stick to the city’s Department of Elections’ policies, and don’t instruct individuals what or whom to vote for come election day. “We don’t tell them how to vote,” Powell said. “We clarify issues for them.”
Also available to clarify issues and register people to vote is the Department of Elections. “The City Hall Voting Center is a good option for people who are homeless or in housing transition,” said Fox. “It is open for a month prior to every election, fully accessible, and has staff on hand to answer any questions.”
As we approach the November elections, we would be wise to recognize this demographic of non-permanently housed individuals as a population that can make a difference in election outcomes, especially at the local level.
“They have some weight to throw around,” said Powell. “And I’ll say, the situation that our city is facing right now, it’s a very important voice. The guy that you see lying on the street one morning might be sitting at a desk the next afternoon working on his GED and the next day he might be an educated voter.”“The emphasis is on the validity of the voice of this demographic,” Powell said. “What we’re talking about is the disenfranchised exercising their right to vote. We’re all in this together.”