Homeless and a voter: Inside LA's new outreach program
Posted March 3, 2020 9:00 a.m. EST
CNN — On most Tuesdays, you can usually find the back courtyard of the People Concern in Santa Monica filled with a bustling crowd of the area's homeless population picking up free groceries.
This past Sunday, that same courtyard hosted two voting booths for the first time. It was part of a Los Angeles County initiative to increase voter accessibility by allowing day of voter registration, increasing early voting by 11 days, and placing polling locations at various homeless shelters throughout the city.
Proudly wearing an "I Voted" sticker on his forehead, Steve Norman, who described himself as a former Marine and Gulf War veteran, couldn't contain his glee at casting his first vote in over 25 years.
"It makes me feel like an American," Norman said. "I've been scared to vote, but all of a sudden I feel comfortable."
Visit CNN's Election Center for full coverage of the 2020 race
For four hours, volunteers stood by the narrow walkway — down past the entrance of the center's popular free showers and lockers — and encouraged those who walked past to vote.
"I actually came here to see if they had food," said Amber Maureen Morris, 25.
After learning from the staff about her ability to vote, Morris cast a ballot in the Democratic Primary for Bernie Sanders — the second vote of her life. "I feel like I belong somewhere in this world."
Expanding voting access
While many conservative states and municipalities around the country have attempted to institute a number of increasingly restrictive voter ID laws, Los Angeles County — the most populous county in America — is on the vanguard of expanding voting access.
Under Los Angeles Country's new Voting Solutions For All People initiative -- which has unified the county's registration system, allowing residents to register and vote at any polling location in the county —"flex voting centers" have opened up at locations meant to serve underrepresented communities, including homeless shelters, in the 11 days leading up to Tuesday's vote.
"The biggest message that we want to have out to the homeless community is that your voice does matter," said Michael Sanchez, spokesperson for the L.A. County Registrar.
Other Flex voting centers have opened up at senior living communities, centers for the disabled and even jails.
According to Herb Smith, president of the Los Angeles Mission, which has hosted polling locations in prior elections, having voting booths at places where the homeless already receive services is essential.
"I think one of the greatest challenges for homelessness to start with is the level of comfort. There's a lot of distrust in the community. So when [voting] can be done in a place where people feel comfortable and feel wanted, then they'll take the opportunity to do that. But I think to go into a strange location, someplace they don't know. Many of them won't do that," Smith said.
To Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis expanding voter access is a no-brainer.
"In Los Angeles, when we're faced with a high number of people living on the streets, we need to elect people that are going to be responsive to all of our populations, to all of the vulnerable folks that oftentimes don't get their voices heard," said Solis, who also served as Labor Secretary under President Barack Obama.
Kate Peters, chief strategy officer of the People Concern, described expanding voting access to the homeless as a logical extension of the existing work that the Santa Monica homeless service center already provides.
"A lot of the work we do is about connecting people to the access that they need to their basic rights, whether it's food, shelter. Or voting," said Hustings.
'You don't need a home to vote'
While L.A. County has taken steps to increase voting accessibility to its homeless population, it is currently legal in all fifty states to register to vote without a fixed address, according to Megan Hustings, managing director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. The group runs a "You Don't Need a Home to Vote" campaign. "Casting a vote is the same for anyone, no matter whether you have a home or not," Hustings said. "You don't need a home to vote."
Virtually all municipalities allow homeless voters to register with an address of a homeless shelter, and others allow you to list an intersection.
However, in practice, voting while homeless can be extremely difficult. Lost IDs, short voting windows and a lack of awareness about one's voting rights could keep a homeless citizen from casting a vote. And, according to Hustings, even if the law permits you to register, the people registering you to vote might not understand that.
"Elections officials don't always realize the actual rules of registering," Hustings said.
No registration? No problem
Thanks to the new unified registration system under VSAP, any L.A. county voter can now register to and cast a vote at any polling location.
"Whereas in the past, [voters] had to be tied down to one polling place near [their] residence...now there's an option for those individuals to go anywhere, no matter where they are within Los Angeles County," Sanchez, of the L.A. County Registrar, said.
On Sunday at the People Concern, the new voting system seemed to work smoothly.
"Thumbs up," said James Helms Jr., a homeless man who cast a vote in the Republican primary for President Donald Trump. "No ID, just walk in and they have everything right there."
Helms, like every homeless voter that CNN interviewed at the People Concern, registered to vote at the polling location immediately prior to casting his ballot.
For Steve Norman, the convenience of registering and casting his vote was a welcome respite from his usual bureaucratic encounters.
"Every time I check into a place like [a homeless shelter], or a hospital, I feel like I'm checking into death. So, when I was done, and the way this lady was, the way this guy was...I was proud to be an American," Norman said.