Groups aim to register thousands of homeless to vote

1,150 signed up nationwide in 1-day drive last month


WASHINGTON - Having no home and no money should not exclude someone from voting, according to two national groups that are trying to register thousands of homeless people to vote in the presidential election.

"The message that the poor and homeless are voting is part of a bigger strategy to get the issues of the poor heard," said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

On July 22, his group and the National Low Income Housing Coalition registered roughly 1,150 homeless people nationwide in a one-day drive in 16 states and the District of Columbia. They also worked with local shelters to train volunteers and educate communities about voting rights. They are hoping to register 25,000 poor and homeless people to vote in November.

But the effort had smaller beginnings.

Two residents of the Pine Street Inn, a shelter and service group in Boston, paired up with local election officials and a voting machine manufacturer to register shelter residents and other local homeless people.

So far, the two men, Fred Atkinson and Jim Cronin, have registered more than 570 homeless people, including 170 on the one-day drive in July. Aimee Coolidge, a spokeswoman for the Pine Street Inn, said that 61 percent registered as Democrats, 31 percent as independents and fewer than 1 percent as Republicans.

Kim Schaffer, communications director for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said, "There is a lot of confusion around how or even whether someone who is homeless can register to vote."

The Constitution does not require voters to own property or to have a permanent address, though some states require an address for registration purposes. To comply with these laws, many homeless people claim residency at soup kitchens, homeless shelters and even intersections or parks.

While the National Low Income Housing Coalition has been involved in this project for a year, the National Coalition for the Homeless has been working to educate the homeless about voting since 1992.

Michelle Maslov, social justice coordinator for So Others Might Eat, a Washington service group that has been working with local branches of CARE, an international humanitarian organization, said that many would-be registrants in Washington worried about their status as former felons. "In D.C., if you are an ex-felon, as long as you are not in prison, you can register," she said. "A lot of people were happy to hear that." While thousands are registering to vote with this year's initiative, others registered before they became homeless.

"I think it's great; in order to affect registration on homeless issues, they have to have a voice, they have to vote," said James Davis, 47, who has been registered to vote in Maryland since 1979. Davis said he was laid off by the Defense Department, where he worked for 23 years, and has been homeless for several months.

Now he is a vendor in downtown Washington for Street Sense, the newspaper produced by the National Coalition for the Homeless, and is involved in Faces, a program that sends former and current homeless people to discuss homelessness at colleges and religious organizations.

"I know it could happen to anybody," Davis said.

Another Street Sense vendor, Jason Luke, 25, said he registered to vote at 18. He became homeless, he said, about three years ago.

Luke said he would vote for Sen. John Kerry this year because "he seems to be more worried about us than anyone else."

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