Homeless Getting the Right to Vote : Elections: Courts are ordering registration. Sheer numbers could create a formidable constituency.


The closest thing that Martin Wright has to a home is the subway train he aimlessly rides most nights. Robin Rickard lives under the United Nations Building. Lazaro Falu stays with friends when he can.

A few years ago, these three citizens of New York would have been denied the right to vote simply because they are homeless. How can you register people, the city argued, if all they have to offer for an address is a park bench or a steam grate? Where would you send their voter registration cards? What precinct would you put them in?

But nowhere in the Constitution does it limit the most basic democratic right to those who pay rent or mortgages, so the courts have ordered New York and other cities to allow the homeless to register as voters.

The homeless still have to provide a mailing address, but often they can list the residence of a friend or relative, a social service agency or a post office box. The same system applies in Los Angeles.

"It means a lot for us to vote," Rickard insisted. "Even though we are homeless, we aren't helpless."

Rickard, Wright and Falu are among thousands of homeless who are adding their names to the voter rolls. In sheer numbers, the homeless could present a formidable constituency.

Nationally, depending on how one defines the homeless, there may be as many as 3 million. The Coalition for the Homeless estimates that New York alone has at least 70,000.

"It's a big bloc of votes," said Will Daniel, director of Homeless Voter '89, a year-old independent project that claims to have registered more than 2,250 in New York.

Even though the registration deadline for Tuesday's mayoral contest has passed, Daniel continues to recruit new voters, setting up registration tables at the city's food lines and passing out information on candidates and polling places.

Although he receives support from many of the city's homeless advocacy groups, Daniel's is virtually a one-man operation. He has only a few hundred dollars of funding and says he is living on his savings and running Homeless Voter '89 out of his apartment.

It is hard enough for most people to find the time and enthusiasm to get to the polls, as evidenced by the fact that voter turnout in the 1988 presidential election was only 51%, the second lowest in the 20th Century. Voting is an even lower priority for those who find mere survival a tremendous daily struggle.

No figures are available, but most agencies agree that the homeless have not made much of a dent in voter registration, or in election results.

"Do I think homeless people are turning elections around? I think not," said Robert Hayes, the attorney who filed the 1984 lawsuit that won New York's homeless the right to vote. "But there is tremendous symbolic significance in making clear that homeless people are not invisible."

Sheila King, who is living with her three teen-age daughters in a shelter, said: "The politicians is what makes us. We have to vote for things, rather than just complain about them." King cited crime as her biggest concern. That is why she plans to vote for GOP mayoral nominee Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former U.S. attorney.

Anthony, a homeless man who registered for the first time several months ago, said: "I just recently started getting serious about voting." He added: "When I was younger, I felt it didn't affect me. But who's in office does affect me."

He wants to vote for Manhattan Borough President David N. Dinkins for mayor on Tuesday.

"I'm not wishy-washy like some people. People like that don't need to vote," he added, with evident disdain for those more apathetic than himself.

But even those homeless who are eager to vote sometimes are discouraged by paper work and logistics.

Anthony, for example, has moved three times since he registered, and he was concerned that his voter registration card had not arrived. After finishing his lunch at the Holy Apostles soup kitchen in Manhattan one day last week, he stopped by the little table that Daniel had set up outside and explained his situation.

Anthony could vote even without the card, Daniel explained, and showed him where his polling place would be.

Anthony's wife, Tina, had a trickier problem; her first card had been returned by the Board of Elections because she had not filled it out completely. That meant she could not vote in Tuesday's election, but a Homeless Voter '89 volunteer helped her fill out another so she would be eligible next year.

"You be sure you put me down as a Democrat," she reminded him.

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