Thursday, April 01, 2004

Renewed drive to get the homeless to vote

Christian Science Monitor April 1, 2004

Renewed drive to get the homeless to vote

Homeless shelters are setting up voter registries.

By Kimberly Chase – Contributor to the Christian Science Monitor

New York – Vincent Corcoran knows that ward clerks are surprised when they see an unkempt homeless man with ragged clothes making his way to the voting booth. But that doesn’t bother him. He believes that voting is his right, and has continued to exercise it during his 15 years on and off the streets.

“Because I’m homeless, that doesn’t mean I’m not a human being, I’m not a person,” he says. “God gave us the right just like anybody else.”

In a presidential year, Mr. Corcoran and other homeless people could make a small but noteworthy impact in some states – remember Florida was decided by just over 500 votes in 2000 – come November. If anything, it’s an opportunity to showcase what some say are growing concerns surrounding the 3.5 million people who cycle into homelessness each year and help them reintegrate back into society.

Voter administration officials in major cities, however, show little concern. Claims of fraud related to homeless people in Chicago were never proven, and voters today are comprehensively canvassed before elections to eliminate obsolete registrations from the rolls.

“I haven’t heard a vote-buying complaint in years. It just doesn’t happen, because the penalties are so strong and the elections are so well monitored,” says Tom Leach, spokesperson for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

While advocates hope a voice at ballot box can help get quality healthcare and education for those who need it, the main issue is getting the homeless off the streets permanently. One key topic this year is funding for Section 8 housing assistance programs in President Bush’s proposed budget for 2005. While new money going into these housing subsidies has increased since 2003, unused funds from previous years cushioned HUD’s budgets in 2003 and 2004. As a result, even with an increase in funding, less money is expected to be available after this year.

Tom Weiss is determined that other homeless people understand the issue and vote, because it could make the difference for them between a roof over their heads or a night in the shelter. Also homeless, Mr. Weiss has registered many of his fellow residents at Peter`s Place and was instrumental in getting Senator Edward’s representative to come to the center before Super Tuesday. “The higher the rate of registration, the more political impact you are likely to have,” says Weiss.

But for many homeless people, like Corcoran, voting is also a way to reintegrate them into society in spite of their alienating circumstances. “If you don’t vote, then when the voting’s over, then you say how’d this guy get in here? How’d this woman get in here?” asks Corcoran. “If you don’t want them in there, go to the polls.”

EVERY VOTE COUNTS: Tom Weiss is homeless and stays at Peter’s Place, a Manhattan drop-in center. He’s made efforts to register other homeless voters and educate them about election issues. KIMBERLY CHASE

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