Volume 74, Number 27 | November 10 - 16, 2004



Getting shelter residents to feel at home at polls

By Emily Waltz

Armed with an ID card and proof of his address, 51-year-old Richard DiSalvo and a dozen fellow Bowery homeless shelter residents marched to the voting booth on Tuesday evening.

“I might have bypassed voting tonight if these guys wouldn’t have come by,” he said, referring to volunteers from Partnership for the Homeless, a New York-based nonprofit agency that provides education, family and healthcare programs.

To follow-up on the voter registration drives they held earlier this year, Partnership workers scoured the Kenton Hall shelter at dinner time on election night to round up registered residents, and escort them to a nearby polling station.

It was DiSalvo’s first time voting.

“I’m still deciding as we walk over,” he said.

The procession was one of about six in New York led by the Partnership, and the last step in a yearlong process to spur the homeless to the polls. The Partnership registered 2,200 homeless people at 60 sites since January, organizers said.

DiSalvo registered at his shelter when Partnership volunteers came by this fall to inform the men that they had a right to vote even though they didn’t have a permanent address.

Mahmoud Rashid, a social service director at the Kenton Hall, said the effort made an impact on the shelter.

“They’re aware, now, and ready to do this,” he said.

The New York social services agency was one of many across the country that held voter registration drives and escorted homeless people to the polls during this presidential election.

The National Coalition for the Homeless, the largest organization in the field, registered about 35,000 homeless people nationwide this year, organizers said.

The coalition also suggested that shelters run a mock voting booth with sample ballots before the election, and encourage taxi companies to provide free rides to the polling places.

Most polling sites in Manhattan are within walking distance, but some shelters in the outer boroughs gave MetroCards to homeless voters to help them get to the polls.

Walking from their shelter to a nearby polling site, DiSalvo and the other men found themselves fully enfranchised and feeling luckier than those in similar positions.

Advocates say several new federal and state laws had the potential to make it tougher for homeless people to vote this year. One provision of the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires voters who registered by mail without providing identification to show an ID at the polls on Election Day. Thirty-nine states require people to provide an address when they register.

“They’ll put down the address of a shelter, a church, a soup kitchen, a bar or a pawnshop,” said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the national coalition.

But receiving confirmation of their voter registration or any other mail at these locations is haphazard, he said.

Kenton Hall provides its residents with an ID card with the shelter’s address. Residents must use it at the shelter and to participate in the shelter’s programs. The card sufficed as identification at the polls, Rashid said.

Among the most urgent concerns of homeless people, affordable housing, healthcare and a living wage usually determine which candidate they choose, Stoops said. The belief that homeless people are apathetic to current events is wrong, he explained.

“If there is anything good about being homeless,” he said, “it is that you have a lot of time to read the paper.”

Daryl Tota, 28, a resident at Kenton Hall, aired his views on the candidates. “Aren’t they saying the exact same thing?” he said of Bush and Kerry, finishing his plate of ribs and potatoes in the shelter’s cafeteria.

He held up two fingers on each hand, making a quote sign when he rehearsed his reason for voting: “I want to be a ‘productive member a society.’ ” He said he planned to vote after he finished dinner.

He added: “I’ve got one thing to say to President Bush: You’s a fool!”

DiSalvo, however, was still undecided when he reached the voting booth.

“I don’t know if Kerry can stand up to the terrorists like Bush,” he said. “But Bush has cut everything, even Section 8.”

This year, the Bush administration is pushing for cutbacks in Section 8 housing, the primary federal funding for rent subsidies for the poor. On the state level, New York is considering reallocating the federal money from Section 8 in ways that give homeless people fewer choices and opportunities to leave shelters and move into homes, homeless advocates say.

But for the survival-savvy homeless person, voting is less about the issues, and more about immediate needs.

“A friend of mine that is homeless says he has three reasons for voting,” Stoops said. “He gets a paper ID card when he votes, there is usually free coffee and doughnuts at the polling sites, and at least when he’s in a church or school to vote, he has temporary shelter.”

Two days after the election, DiSalvo found out that he was going to move into regular housing. Project Renewal has a program called In Homes Now, which got him the housing.

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