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Photo: Athiyah Azeem via Street Sense Media
Volunteers with Pathways to Housing D.C. helped homeless individuals register to vote outside the D.C. Downtown Day Services Center on September 11, 2020.

What a time we are living through! When Covid-19 shuts down businesses, workers often can’t pay rent and become homeless. Even if they believe that a change of government would help their situation, homelessness can make registering to vote impossible. You can’t win.

Except that there are always people willing to help.

For example, as Justin Wm. Moyer wrote recently at the Washington Post, volunteers in DC are standing by to ensure that the disenfranchised get the rights to which they’re entitled.

He wrote, “Tracy Lincoln doesn’t know exactly when she left her native Houston — it’s been months, she says — but she knows she wanted to ‘come and see the world.’ …

“Amid her travels, she needs to vote. She already was registered elsewhere but came to D.C.’s Downtown Day Services Center for the homeless to switch her registration to the nation’s capital. Though she doesn’t have a preferred candidate — ‘you don’t know what they’re like until they get there,’ she says — not voting is not an option. ‘That’s how you make changes,’ she said. ‘You have to hold people accountable.’

“While advocates are registering people to vote in a polarizing election held during a pandemic, they are also registering a population traumatized by, in some cases, years on the streets. It’s these barriers to voting that Pathways to Housing DC, which has registered more than 60 voters since launching the voter drive last month, is trying to overcome. …

“ ‘Our entire mission and model is based on listening to the people we serve. Listening is not always there at the larger societal level,’ said Christy Respress, the Pathways executive director. …

“Some questions on the form could be intimidating to someone without a place to stay. Lincoln doesn’t have a permanent address, but the form asks for the ‘address where you live’ and the ‘address where you get your mail.’ It also asks would-be voters about their citizenship.

“Megan Hustings, managing director of the nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless, said … the obstacles are immense not just for [her] clients, but for anyone living in poverty. …

“Some states might require identification like Social Security cards or driver’s licenses — documentation homeless people may not have, or that may be too expensive for those living on the street to acquire.

“If cost or access to identification isn’t a problem, lifestyle can be. People living outdoors ‘lose stuff all the time,’ Hustings said. When a homeless encampment is cleared, she said, officials might dispose of belongings without preserving important paperwork.

“Other barriers are psychological. Homeless people may be embarrassed about their ignorance of the process and might not know their polling place or be familiar with candidates and political parties.

“Organizations like Pathways can provide an address for people to receive mail — crucial this fall, when the D.C. Board of Elections will mail every registered voter a ballot — but advocates worry the pandemic has compounded voting problems.

‘I’m concerned with people losing housing because of the pandemic,’ Hustings said. …

“It’s not clear how many homeless people vote, but census data shows most people with lower incomes don’t. In the 2018 midterm election, 31 percent of people nationwide living in a family with income of less than $10,000 a year cast a ballot, compared with 68 percent of those with a family income above $150,000. Eleven percent of those in the lower-income group said they didn’t vote because they had transportation problems, compared with 0.3 percent of those in the higher-income group. …

“Homeless voters are like other voters: unpredictable.

“Sam Gilliard, a 50-year-old veteran and D.C. native who registered at the Day Center on Friday, said he has been homeless for two years. He lost his job in March when the lumber yard where he was working in Northwest Washington went out of business. He sleeps in a garage and plans to get his ballot delivered to a friend’s house.

“Gilliard likes Trump, especially everything the president did ‘before corona,’ he said. He likes that Trump is unfiltered. … Other registrants, like Allen Williams — a chef who lost his job amid the pandemic and was homeless from 2005 until July — favors Biden.

“ ‘I’m so fearful of what happens if we don’t have a new candidate in office,’ he said. …

“And there were those who walked away without registering at all. One woman wearing a headscarf read over the registration form for a few minutes, then shook her head and walked away.

“Maria Gusman, a benefits specialist at Pathways who was registering voters on a recent day, said it’s easy for some to become discouraged when a voter registration form is in their hand.

“ ‘It can be difficult,’ she said. ‘People in politics don’t believe people experiencing homelessness vote. They don’t believe it matters anyway.’ “

But there are more of them every year, alas. We need to pay attention. More here.

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