While LAHSA Left Homeless Voters in the Dark, Communities Worked to Overcome the Barriers that Prevent Homeless People from Voting
On October 21st, the LA Homeless Services Authority sent an email to service providers. The subject line announced that “Vote 2020 Info Now Available On LAHSA Website,” providing information on how homeless people can register to vote. Unfortunately, LAHSA’s registration portal arrived two days after the registration deadline passed. This left much of the information LAHSA provided outdated and potentially confusing to homeless voters and the organizations seeking to help them exercise that right.
Confusingly, the email from LAHSA on the 21st notes that “the last day to register to vote to receive a Vote By Mail ballot is October 19th.”
The LAHSA page the email directs to is filled with information about registering online, as well as how organizations can obtain paper registration materials. Given the registration deadline has already passed, this information is not only unhelpful, it may be actively confusing to people who attempt to register via the online portal, only to discover that they can’t do so.
LAHSA does provide some helpful information on in-person registration, which Californians are entitled to do on the same day they vote. The document also provides helpful information on filling out address information, which can be complicated for those registering without a stable mailing or residential address.
A LAHSA representative clarified that the site went up in late September, and had been shared through other channels. The representative also stated that they plan to update the information to be more current.
However, publicizing this at such such a late date left service providers, community groups, and unhoused people with the task of putting this information together themselves. Luckily, many stepped up to fill the gap.
Last weekend, Theo Henderson, an unhoused LA resident and host of the We The Unhoused podcast, organized and hosted a voter registration and education event aimed at homeless people. On a sunny day in Echo Park, volunteers registered voters, handed out meals, and held a mock election while speakers emphasized the link between voting and homelessness.
Shawn Pleasants, who spent years living on the streets of Koreatown, told the crowd, “I vote to be represented. I vote for what I need. I vote to honor those who died so I could vote. I vote to change my world for the better. And I vote because there’s an economic recession, racial oppression, voter suppression, and a presidential election.”
Henderson worked with community organizations like LA Community Action Network, West Valley People’s Alliance, and Ktown for All on voter registration and education projects for the unhoused community.
Alex Mullenix, a Ktown for All organizer who worked on the group’s “#VotesEndHomelessness” project, said “voting rights for unhoused Angelenos are primarily an access and engagement issue.” Mullenix added that LA needs “active outreach so that everyone is aware of their rights.”
Other groups around LA have stepped up as well.
In Chatsworth, outreach ministry About My Father’s Business worked to register local encampment residents for both the primary and general elections. Sanctuary of Hope, which provides housing and services to young adults, transformed their front yard. They filled it with signs encouraging participation in elections and the census.
Homeless voters face numerous barriers when they seek to cast their votes.
Ruth, a homeless LA resident, described her experience attempting to vote in the primary:
“My significant other and I tag-teamed to the polls but the lines were terribly long. I didn’t have a working bike and my significant other only had ID in the form of a photo on a dead phone. We successfully cast zero out of two votes.”
Ruth faced these difficulties despite acknowledging that she has advantages over many other homeless potential voters. “What we have, a working phone, a mailing address, ID, somewhat clean records, a stable camp, is so much more than most of the unhoused people we know. I’m not saying that to put anyone down, but to amplify their problems, which can be so much harder and bigger than mine.”
Without a stable home address, voting by mail is difficult, making in-person voting centers especially important for homeless voters.
Katherine McNenny, a Skid Row resident and neighborhood advocate, recently mapped voting centers downtown. She discovered that not a single site was located within the boundaries of Skid Row, an area with over 4,000 homeless residents.
“Skid Row has been completely disenfranchised,” McNenny wrote.
Like Henderson, Dr. Robin Petering decided to do things herself when she discovered the lack of information available to homeless voters and service providers. Petering is a researcher focused on youth homelessness who has spent much of the summer and fall engaging homeless youth and service providers about voter registration.
“Telling someone to register to vote and ‘go vote’ doesn’t work. Unhoused populations often have a lot of trauma from systems and their voice has been intentionally silenced by the political process. We’ve had success illuminating the power of voting for the people and policies” that impact homeless people, said Petering. “Voter registration is just one part of it.”
Earlier in October, Petering put out a report on homeless youth voters, outlining the need for registration and engagement programs targeting unhoused voters.
Some county efforts at engaging homeless voters have been successful.
During the primary election, the county used a site operated by The People Concern, a homeless services organization, as a voting center. Homeless voters and People Concern staff expressed that they found this useful, as volunteers sensitive to the barriers faced by homeless voters were on hand to answer questions and assist with same-day registration. Expanding these partnerships can help ensure that homeless Angelenos who show up to the polls are able to register and cast a ballot.
LAHSA declares in its mission statement that “we work to eliminate disparities within our system.” For unhoused residents seeking to cast their votes, these disparities couldn’t be clearer. The community members and organizations who’ve stepped up to address these issues will continue to fight for the voting rights of unhoused people. But without the support, funding, and reach of the county these efforts are necessarily limited.
Update: After this story was published, LAHSA sent a follow up email to service providers acknowledging the deadline for vote by mail registration had passed, and providing additional information about in person registration.