Grace Lopez watched nine presidential elections come and go, never paying much attention to the hurly-burly of campaigning or the exhortations to register and vote.
But when a volunteer with a registration form approached her on a Los Angeles skid row street, something clicked.
“I just want to be counted as a citizen,” said Lopez, 58, who listed her address as a homeless drop-in center a few blocks from the dirty and cracked sidewalk on Main Street where she sleeps.
While the presidential candidates try to impress suburbanites, swing voters and soccer moms, social advocates are working to increase the numbers of homeless and low-income voters who vote.
Recent efforts included 100 events in 35 states with the goal of registering 25,000. Volunteers in Los Angeles are registering people in welfare offices, providing absentee ballots to invalids and disabled residents at transient hotels, conducting voter education sessions at homeless shelters and signing up inmates at the Los Angeles County Jail.
Los Angeles advocates, who were the first in the nation to submit homeless shelters as polling places, hope to register 5,000 new voters and plan extensive voter education and mobilization drives before Nov. 2. The registration deadline is Oct. 18.
Although homelessness has not been a high-profile theme in the campaign, it has been addressed obliquely. Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards speaks of two Americas, and the decidedly lower-key Green Party candidate, Pat LaMarche, is in the midst of a two-week sleeping tour of homeless shelters, including a scheduled stop in Los Angeles.
“Homeless and low-income people know that, although their conditions were already bad, things have gotten worse in the last few years, and they want to do something about it,” said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a group based in Washington, D.C., that is cosponsoringvoter participation events.
In California, several ballot initiatives -- Proposition 63, which would raise money to expand mental health care with a 1% tax on personal income of more than $1 million, and Proposition 72, which would require most employers to pay 80% of a worker’s healthcare costs -- are particularly compelling to homeless and low-income individuals, said Deborah Burton, an organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network.
The group has been canvassing downtown L.A.'s squalid 50-square-block skid row and its 6,000 to 8,000 homeless inhabitants. For four years, Burton has lived in the area at the Angelus Inn, driven there by high housing costs. She said she worked for years at a Kmart with no health insurance, never taking a day off when sick because she couldn’t afford to miss the pay.
“I’ve always voted, but I’ve never had to get out there and do street outreach,” said Burton, wearing a bright orange L.A. CAN T-shirt. “I had no idea what the situation was before I moved here. I just want to make a difference.”
On a recent overcast morning at a small park at 5th and San Julian streets, Burton and other volunteers attempted to entice the assembled men and women to register, using posters, loudspeakers and voting trivia games with compact discs as prizes.
In an hour, about 20 signed up, including Willie O’Dell, a 30-year-old staying at the Los Angeles Mission, who said he never voted in an election because he was too lazy. He said that he will now, though, and that he has no trouble deciding among Republican President Bush, Democrat John F. Kerry and the third-party candidates.
“My issue is Social Security and how much funding it gets,” O’Dell said. “I want Bush to win because he’s militant and he knows what’s going on, like his father.”
Later, O’Dell, with a little prodding, correctly named Ida B. Wells as a famous campaigner against laws that required literacy to vote and beamed when he won a CD.
Amid the bustle of the toy district along Los Angeles Street, the volunteers descended on a sidewalk encampment of about a dozen cardboard shelters with canvas tents pitched over the fence of an adjacent parking lot.
Many inhabitants simply shook their heads no; some said they already were registered. One man, lying on a blanket and apparently confused by the intrusion, proffered a dollar bill to support the cause, whatever it was, until waved off by a friend.
Sitting a few feet away on a ledge, Charles Ross puffed on a cigarette and explained to L.A. CAN outreach worker Herman Jones that in his 73 years, he had never voted and he was not feeling compelled to do so this time.
But Jones was not easily dissuaded.
Battling drug and alcohol addictions, Jones spent years on the streets, living on the sidewalk at 5th and Crocker streets and yelling at passersby to get off his frontyard. A big, barrel-chested man, he is capable of drawing interest by his mere presence.
He coaxed Ross to look at the registration form and then started filling in information. Ross, originally from Indiana, lives at the Frontier Hotel and indicated his preference to register as a Republican.
“Are you a citizen?” Jones asked Ross.
“Are you a citizen?” Ross answered cantankerously.
He then asked Jones if he’s from Texas. “How did you know?” the Houston native asked. “Because you’re a big man,” Ross said, smiling mischievously.
Ross’ decision to register as a Republican put him in the minority. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, voter registration drives show that about 60% of homeless people identify themselves as Democrats, 20% as Republicans and 20% as independents.
The overall number of homeless people appears to be growing. Recent Census data show an upturn in the number of people living in extreme poverty since 1996, and a U.S. Conference of Mayors report found an increase in requests for food and shelter in major urban centers this year.
Homeless and low-income individuals are the least likely to register to vote and the least likely to turn out at the polls. Census data from 2000 show that about 53% of those earning less than $5,000 were registered and 34% of those voted, compared with a 78% registration rate and a 69% voter turnout for those earning more than $50,000.
National Coalition for the Homeless surveys, however, indicate that homeless people are surprisingly well informed about local, national and even international events.
“Homeless people tend to spend more time in libraries than the general population and are more up on current events than most Americans,” noted Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the coalition.
Los Angeles’ registration drives have been a model for other cities, Stoops said, and they are successful because the homeless population is so geographically concentrated.
Prospective voters in the county are allowed to name an intersection as their abode and can list the address of a service provider to receive voting materials.
In 2000, 18 polling places were situated in homeless centers or shelters throughout the county. This time, only three -- the Midnight Mission and Union Rescue Mission downtown and PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) in midtown -- had been selected by the end of last month.
The Midnight Mission offers its address as a post office box for homeless individuals, so it was natural to host a polling place, said spokesman Orlando Ward.
“In recent years, we’ve had a decent turnout, and in some years it’s a trickle,” he said. “We expect turnout this year to be strong because there’s a lot of outreach going on.”