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Housing and Homelessness Are on the Ballot. Will Unhoused People Have a Say?

Housing measures are on the ballot in nearly 80 jurisdictions, but those most affected struggle to get to the polls.

A woman who is living at the Union Rescue Mission cast her vote at the James Wood Community Center at in downtown Los Angeles on June 7, 2022.

Most Americans across racial and ethnic groups say affordable housing is a serious problem where they live, according to an August 2022 poll. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates the nation has a shortage of 7 million affordable and accessible rental units, made worse in recent years by the convergence of the coronavirus pandemic and inflation.

This midterm election cycle, the dire situation has made its way to the ballot in nearly 80 local jurisdictions where more than 50 million people live. Next week, millions will vote on hundreds of measures related to building new housing and increasing access to more affordable properties.

Housing and human rights advocates have championed this election cycle’s emphasis on the right to housing. Still, solving the housing crisis through voting seems like a far-fetched idea for many of those most deeply impacted by a tightened housing market — the chronically unhoused and housing insecure.

In all 50 states, unhoused people have the right to vote, even without having a permanent home address. People experiencing housing insecurity can vote using addresses from wherever they consider their residence, including temporary shelters, places where they receive mail, and street intersections.

But while they have a right to vote, the process isn’t always practical or enticing, advocates say. Some states, such as Georgia and Mississippi, have instituted barriers that can be challenging for people experiencing housing insecurity, such as voter ID requirements.

Unhoused people also have to overcome higher rates of illiteracy, limited access to credible information, and transportation issues. Poor trust in government institutions also dissuades many from engaging in the democratic process, said Lee, an unhoused man in Los Angeles.

“Homeless people are being talked at rather than worked with,” he said.

The difficulties extend to “couch surfers” and others facing housing insecurity. Without access to stable housing, mail-in voting is nearly impossible and finding one’s correct in-person polling site is a challenge.

“It’s very difficult to ask someone to vote when they don’t know where they’re going to sleep at night or how they’re going to feed their children,” said Kat Calvin, founder of Spread The Vote + Project ID, a national organization that helps the elderly, unhoused people, and immigrants obtain IDs needed for jobs, housing, and voting.

“Everybody understands that voting is important, but people have been failed by politicians for so long, that it’s very difficult to get people to make all of the effort that it takes to vote,” she said.

The difficulty of navigating the voting system while experiencing housing insecurity intensifies issues that disproportionately affect Black Americans. In the United States, Black folks experience homelessness at a rate four times higher than white residents and nearly three times higher than Latino residents. Black communities, regardless of income, are also most likely to experience voter suppression in the form of polling place consolidation, longer wait times on Election Day, and accusations of voter fraud when voting by mail, research has found.

Since the COVID-era eviction moratoriums were lifted in 2021, Black renters have faced the possibility of eviction at a rate nearly double that of white renters. A 2021 study found that across geographic regions, increases in neighborhood eviction rates led to substantial declines in voter turnout.

With multimillion-dollar spending initiatives on the ballot to build affordable housing and support unhoused populations, Calvin says governments have failed to emphasize getting those who would be most impacted by the policies to the polls.

“There’s no one whose life is more impacted by the decisions that government makes than people who aren’t housed,” she explained, “and every little thing adds up to make it a less approachable and appealing process for the people who should actually be prioritized.”

Lee, the unhoused Los Angeles resident, echoed those sentiments. He wants to vote in this year’s election in Los Angeles, which includes a tax measure that would raise $923 million annually to build affordable housing, provide rent relief to low-income residents, and subsidize legal counsel for tenants. Yet, the barriers in front of the process may outweigh the results, he says.

Struggling with drug addiction, “I didn’t vote before,” the 44-year-old said. “I got clean, got my life together. I started voting and participating in society, but it didn’t pay off. My support systems, mental health workers, and housing are just gone.”

He’s also afraid of losing his belongings while away at the long commute to the polling site. About a month ago, a group of workers from the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, stood outside Lee’s tent wearing bright orange vests and hard hats. Behind them sat an idled garbage truck and a few Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies who were there to ensure “things didn’t get out of hand,” Lee recalled.

His community, a group of six unhoused people living in apartment-like tents decorated with photos and furnished with mattresses and couches, was being “swept.” In California and across the country, local governments have invested millions of dollars in “sweeping” public spaces to rid “ever-increasing amounts of litter” from “otherwise-beautiful landscapes,” as explained by Caltrans. California’s 2022 budget includes $700 million for encampment removals.

That has often meant displacing thousands of unhoused people and destroying their belongings. In the first six months of 2021, Caltrans removed and discarded the belongings of 1,400 people experiencing homelessness, according to data released to Capital B News through the California Public Records Act.

In Los Angeles, specifically, sweeps are becoming more commonplace after the expansion of an anti-camping law, which has made homelessness illegal in roughly one-fifth of the city. For Lee, being swept has made accessing permanent housing even more difficult. “They didn’t offer us housing; they didn’t give us no kind of resources. They just came and did what they did,” he explained. “It has left a lot of us afraid.”

A recent study found that these kinds of low-level interactions with law enforcement and government agencies have a significant impact on voter turnout. The study found that even “lighter police contact,” including parking tickets or just interacting with the police, within six months of an election made Black voters less likely to go to the polls. These “routine interactions,” the study’s authors wrote, “can prompt a self-preserving withdrawal that political scientists call “strategic retreat”: When people are afraid that government will harm them, they disengage.”

Karen Glover, a retired Black woman experiencing housing insecurity, told Capital B that she already mailed in her ballot for this year’s midterm election, but it was despite government ineptitude. “There are a whole lot of homeless people out here that need all the help they can get,” the Los Angeles native said. “But we vote, and then people don’t stick up to their promises. It hurts people.”

Glover says she was able to vote only because her permanent address is her sister’s Long Beach, California, home, which she has regular access to. If she was living on the streets every day, she says, she doubts she would have been able to navigate the process. “When [elected officials] don’t follow through on their word and then it’s hard to even vote, it makes you go, ‘I don’t think I want to vote anymore.’”

Organizations like Spread The Vote + Project ID and the National Alliance to End Homelessness acknowledge why an unhoused person may not choose to vote in elections but believe there is power in helping potential voters do so. These organizations help register people to vote and offer transportation services and voting guides.

Calvin’s organization helps people procure the documents needed to get IDs, such as proof of residency documents and Social Security cards, regardless of the person’s financial status. The nonprofit organization also provides free transportation to DMVs and social security offices.

“The goal is to do everything and anything to help them get an ID in their hands because they need it to get a bed at a shelter, or a job, and to access any kind of supportive services,” she said. “After folks have gotten what they need to sleep at night and get food in their stomach, then we can talk about voting and work on helping those folks get to the polls.”