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Voting Process Has Hurdles For Homeless Community, But Help Is Available

Early in-person voting starts Tuesday in Ohio and boards of elections will begin mailing absentee ballots for the general election. It marks the end of months of voter registration drives, including those held by advocates for the homeless.

But there’s still much work to be done to address barriers preventing Northeast Ohio’s homeless community from casting their ballots.

James Harrison registered to vote for the first time this year. Harrison is homeless, but currently living in a hotel, an arrangement set up through a shelter because of the coronavirus pandemic. He decided he wanted to vote during a registration event put on by homelessness advocates, Harrison said.

“My vote counts, you know what I’m saying? I ain’t voted since I was able to vote, I ain’t ever voted,” Harrison said. “This will be my first time to vote.”

He is concerned about a lot of issues, including healthcare access, gun violence and rising unemployment. The government lacks compassion, Harrison said, and he supports efforts to increase care for lower-income people.

“What about all the people that don’t have the money, that have to go to work just to eat, to live, to pay their rent?” Harrison said.

But in order to cast his ballot, Harrison needs some assistance. He can’t write well due to a disability, he said, and would need someone there to help him. And he knows he’s not the only one in that position.

“You’ve got quite a few people in here that’s handicapped, like myself, and it’s going to be difficult for us,” Harrison said. “Now, I feel like, is the time to go in and voice my opinion. But I do need a little help.”

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) has been coordinating voter registration events like the one Harrison attended multiple times a week for the past month, said spokesperson Molly Martin. The advocacy organization visited hotels, shelters and churches to try to get people experiencing homelessness to vote, Martin said.

“In order to even get a ballot sent by mail, people need to send in that ballot application,” Martin said. “We’ve tried to streamline the process by collecting those applications and registration forms that we can turn in ourselves as an organization.”

Local shelters have agreed to serve as the addresses on voter registration forms and will receive the vote-by-mail ballots for people without permanent housing, Martin said. From there, she said, the challenge is making sure the ballots are filled out and returned properly – and before the deadline.

Ballots will need to get from those shelters to the hotels where the voters are staying, she said, or wherever else they are comfortable receiving mail.

“The follow up is just kind of having this massive coordination effort between shelter staff and then with NEOCH,” Martin said, “to make sure that, once those ballots are delivered after Oct. 6, that they get into the hands of people who are there.”

NEOCH can’t collect and return the ballots, Martin said. By law, that has to be done by the voter.

“It’s kind of considered ballot harvesting if an organization collected all those ballots,” Martin said. “We need to follow up with people with reminder cards to either place their ballots in the mail or for them to go individually, or for us to arrange transportation so they can personally put the ballot in the drop box inside the board of elections location.”

NEOCH also has some donated postage for mailing completed ballots, Martin said, rather than dropping them off in person.

About 150 people registered to vote through NEOCH’s efforts, Martin said, and are listed in a spreadsheet with location and contact information so the organization can continue to remind them about their ballots and connect them with whatever additional resources they need.

In Summit County, the League of Women Voters has been in contact with about 35 organizations working with the homeless and transient population. The organization has distributed guides and information to help people experiencing homelessness register to vote, according to League of Women Voters Hudson Advocacy Chair Karen Leith.

“It has produced a lot of interest,” Leith said. “I have to say the staff we trained were very, very enthusiastic about taking this on as an absolute necessity.”

The program helps to ensure potential voters know their options, Leith said, including ways to get around the lack of a government ID by using forms that require a portion of their Social Security number instead.

“We developed a particular PowerPoint to use in training and provided support to ensure they did the voter registration properly, for both the staff of the organizations and their homeless clients,” Leith said.

But the homeless community in Akron doesn’t have many members interested in voting, according to activist Sage Lewis. While homeless and transient people are often well-informed on the local political scene, Lewis said, they often don’t have the paperwork or resources to vote.

“There is no voting in the homeless community,” Lewis said. “They don’t have identifications, those have been stolen repeatedly. They don’t know where to vote.”

People experiencing homelessness are often some of the most dramatically impacted by political decisions, Lewis said, but they’ve been disenfranchised. And the community has other priorities, he said.

“We are so far away, in my mind, from getting homeless people to vote when I can’t get them a tarp, you know?” Lewis said. “I can’t shelter people.”

Reform is needed to get members of the homeless community to a place where they are better motivated and able to cast a ballot, Lewis said.

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