As U.S. economic woes mount, homeless plan to vote

3 mins read

By Syantani Chatterjee

Single mother Mary White worked as a sales clerk until the bank foreclosed on the home she rented.

Tossed out on the street with her six boys, she lost her deposit and her job. Now she is revved up to vote in November. "My situation is going to make me want to vote even more," she said.

"I want to say that this should not be happening to people in America, and I am very angry and upset about it."

White, 42, is among many homeless people eager to cast a vote in an election year dominated by the shaky U.S. economy and a deepening housing crisis.

The U.S. government estimates that more than 400,000 people around the country sleep in homeless shelters each night, with many more on the streets, under bridges and in parked cars. Advocacy groups say that some 3.5 million Americans will find themselves homeless at some point in a year.

As home foreclosures passed the 2 million mark last year, organizations offering emergency accommodation say they are fielding more calls from families facing homelessness as they struggle to keep up with mortgages, rent and bills.

Specific figures are not available, but advocacy groups say many people who have lost their homes are particularly motivated to cast their votes this time around, because they feel they have more at stake.

"Low income and homeless people are more energized than I have ever seen before," said Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition of the Homeless.

"There's a lot of interest in voting because of what's happening in this country."


With the U.S. housing crisis and economic insecurity forming a grim backdrop to the November election, both Democratic candidate Barack Obama and his Republican rival, John McCain, have policies aimed at helping those hardest hit.

Obama has promised to help the nearly 37 million people living below the poverty line with measures including a raised minimum wage — pegged to rise with inflation that hit a near three-year high of 1.1 percent in June — together with family tax breaks and increased access to affordable housing.

McCain campaigned in the "forgotten places" in the U.S. South in April, reaching out to minorities and the poor with policy proposals including business incentives for areas with high unemployment, and housing vouchers for the homeless.

People without a home, more than a third of them families with children, depend on the government and nonprofits. For them much is riding on the outcome of the Nov 4. presidential election, advocacy groups say.

"If you are homeless it is probably a little more important. Because whatever assistance you receive comes from the public sector, which is regulated by politics and elected officials," said Louisa Stark, chairwoman of the Phoenix Consortium to End Homelessness.

Among those following the campaign is Shera Greenwich, a mother of two living at a shelter run by the Henry St. Settlement in New York City.

As she waits to move into a subsidized apartment, she says issues including economic security and obtaining quality healthcare are her focus, and she plans to vote Democratic.

"I see so much change in the future if Obama is elected President," she said. "I think he can get America back on track."


Advocacy groups campaign each election season to get the homeless to register to vote, noting they often face formidable obstacles on the way to the ballot box.

Many may have no permanent address from which to register. Others have lost track of the identification documents that they need in order to obtain voter cards, such as Social Security cards and birth certificates.

"What you find is that so many families move so frequently, things get lost along the way," said Darlene Newsom, CEO of UMOM New Day Centers in Phoenix, which provides emergency shelter for more than 60 homeless families.

Organizations such as UMOM and Beyond Shelter in Los Angeles are helping their clients assemble paperwork, and providing them with an address they can use to register.

While homeless people are not a demographic that will determine the contest's outcome, some who have registered say many of their dearest hopes are pegged on the outcome.

"I want to try to get security for my family, retirement, health issues, all of those things, to try and get myself a little piece of mind." said Mendy Harris, 40, a mother of five who works for a transportation company and lost her rented home in Phoenix after her husband lost his job.

"My husband hasn't voted since he was about 18, but he's really serious this time," added Harris, who plans to vote Democratic.