A week before the 2016 presidential election, Cecelia Grant didn’t know who she’d vote for – “This election is in a ditch,” she said – but she was sure she wanted to cast a ballot on Nov. 8.
“I am planning to vote, but there is one obstacle in my way,” she said. “I had applied for my voter’s registration card on National (Voter) Registration Day, and still have not received my card.”
But Grant was undercounting her obstacles. At the time, Grant was homeless, sleeping on the street in East Harlem. For almost three years, she had mostly lived in New York City shelters. Recently, she had been choosing to live on the street instead of in the shelter system after getting locked in a closet, having people scratching on her bathroom door and witnessing an unstable woman walking around with butcher knives. The New York City Department of Homeless Services “ruined my life,” she said. “If I could sue them for mental suffering and pain, I would.”
With her irregular housing situation and no permanent home address, it’s no surprise Grant wanted the extra security of having her voter identification card in hand when she went to the polls. By the morning of the election, the card still hadn’t arrived at her mailing address. But Grant wasn’t going to let that stop her. She had visited her local community board office, and made phone calls to confirm that she was registered and could vote in East Harlem. She was told she was good to go, and Grant was ready. Before the sun even rose on Nov. 8, she was heading to the polls. “You have to be persistent,” she said, as she walked to cast her vote.
Before she became homeless, Grant worked for the New York City Board of Education, in the school safety agent division, and had her own apartment in Washington Heights. She moved to Florida for a time, to tend to her “dysfunctional family,” but couldn’t find a place to live when she came back. When she first lived in New York City, she would volunteer with the Red Cross and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. These days, she’s active with Picture the Homeless, a political group founded by homeless people to advocate for their rights. Grant estimated she has applied for permanent housing 200 times, and has never been accepted. She’s been on the New York City Housing Authority waitlist for 11 years. On Election Day, she was 57 years old.
Grant arrived at her polling place, Democracy Prep Harlem Elementary, at 6:17 a.m., only to find the doors were closed. A woman outside told her this wasn’t the right location. So Grant walked a couple blocks to the local public school, P.S. 30. Staff outside the school said it wasn’t a polling place either. Without her voter card, Grant wasn’t sure where she was supposed to vote. She tried a third time, walking to the AK Houses, an affordable housing development on Lexington Avenue. This, finally, was the place. It was 6:30 a.m.
Grant joined a short line of voters, bobbing up and down and smiling – but there were still obstacles. She filled out a ballot in her booth, walked over to the scanner and inserted it, but something went wrong. She was given a second ballot, filled it out and tried again, but there was still a problem with the scanning. She tried a third time, and as she was handed a ballot, a poll worker told her this was her last chance. Finally, it worked. At the scanner, Grant lifted her hands to the sky and bowed her head – a gesture of thanks for her vote.
Grant thought the issue with the scanner had to do with her votes for judges, so the third time, she didn’t bother filling out her judicial picks. Otherwise, she went Green Party down the ballot. But Grant was nervous. “Really, you’re silencing my vote,” she said. “I got rejected twice – the third time, it wasn’t a full vote to me.”
Homeless New Yorkers have the legal right to vote, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Grant is politically active and a former government employee, and she is deeply committed to voting. Yet she had to overcome a missing voter registration card and the frustration of visiting three places before she found her polling site. Then she had to fill out three separate ballots, and wasn’t even fully happy with the one that counted. And those were just the issues on voting day. Grant also sleeps on the street, and wonders if, as a homeless woman, her voice even matters to the government. “(Politicians) have a whole different agenda and it doesn’t include us,” she said. “It includes incarcerating us. It includes harassing us. It includes making us feel less than.”
“I think in the crass political world, these were people who quote-unquote ‘didn’t vote,’ and therefore they didn’t matter to some people.” – New York CIty Mayor Bill de Blasio
In January 2016, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio visited a youth homeless shelter in Manhattan to announce funding for 300 new, dedicated shelter beds for homeless and runaway youth. The announcement came days after de Blasio’s political rival, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was widely criticized for an executive order that would, in some cases, force homeless people off the streets when the temperature fell below 32 degrees. New Yorkers living on the street were among the order’s biggest critics, while de Blasio waved off the edict as overreach on an issue that City Hall had under control. Just days later, the mayor was announcing an uncontroversial program to help young people while emphasizing that the city was taking action despite record-high homelessness. The Coalition for the Homeless said there were more than 60,000 homeless people living in New York City shelters in January 2016. A federal report put the number of people in shelters at more than 70,000.
De Blasio, who was halfway through his four-year term as mayor, said it was a “scandal” the way that homelessness had been handled in the city for decades. “Why was any of this tolerated?” de Blasio asked. Pushed by a reporter to answer his own rhetorical question, the mayor looked to the ballot box.
“I think in the crass political world, these were people who quote-unquote ‘didn’t vote,’ and therefore they didn’t matter to some people,” he said. “And I think that’s sick, but I think that’s real.” But his administration would change things, he continued. “We're owning this issue 110 percent. … We are owning it and we’re going at it with everything we’ve got.”
So is a lack of political power to blame for bad shelter conditions and a lack of relief for the homeless? Voting rates lag in low-income populations, and are believed to be even lower among the homeless, who face a number of obstacles to casting their ballots. While there are advocates working to increase the percentage of homeless voters, a number of homeless New Yorkers do vote – consistently, and proudly. And some didn’t appreciate de Blasio’s comments, even if he was playing a sort of devil’s advocate.
“I think the mayor is very mistaken. He’s basing his statement on stereotyped views,” said Ray Soto, who was homeless and living with his domestic partner at the Park View Hotel in Harlem when he talked to City & State. He voted on Election Day 2016 for the first time in a long time after losing his voting rights because of a criminal conviction. “People here are not all lost,” he said. “People here are not all derelicts. People here do care about the way the country is being run.”
Another shelter resident, Gennis Hutton, agreed. “I vote every year,” she said. “What does the mayor know – does he come out? Does he talk to people? Has he ever been to a homeless shelter and asked people if they vote?”
De Blasio, whose administration did not respond to a request for comment, has struggled to combat homelessness. A Quinnipiac University poll from November 2016 found that 59 percent of city voters disapproved of de Blasio’s handling of poverty and homelessness. It was the mayor’s highest disapproval rating, even among other fraught topics like police-community relations, crime and public schools. And some New Yorkers were eager to take the mayor’s suggestion to hold him accountable.
“(Homelessness) has been on the rise since he’s been in this administration,” said DeBoRah Dickerson, a formerly homeless member of Picture the Homeless, who now lives in supportive housing.
Charmel Lucas, who was homeless and living in a shelter near the Brooklyn Bridge, had her own advice for the mayor. “Instead of concentrating on the word ‘homeless people,’ concentrate on the words ‘vacant buildings’ and ‘vacant lots,’” she said. “They’ve been vacant and we need some place to live.”
“People here are not all lost. People here are not all derelicts. People here do care about the way the country is being run.” – Ray Soto, a homeless New Yorker
But when you look at the numbers, de Blasio’s “crass political world” is based in fact. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “Each election, low income and homeless individuals vote at a lower rate than people with higher incomes.” The homeless often move in and out of homelessness, and by definition often do not have a fixed residence, but the organization estimates that only 10 percent of homeless people actually vote in a presidential election. Among the U.S. population as a whole, it’s about 60 percent.
Income statistics reveal an unsurprising trend. New Yorkers in households making less than $25,000 a year, which includes many homeless people, made up 21 percent of the state’s population in 2014, but less than 15 percent of its voters. All other income groups were overrepresented in the voting pool, according to the nonpartisan nonprofit Project Vote. That trend was true for the country as a whole, with only 30 percent of low-income adults voting in the 2014 midterms, compared to 42 percent of the adult population overall. In the 2016 presidential election, individuals in households making more than $150,000 a year were more than twice as likely to vote as those in households making less than $10,000.
Any discussion of voters in New York must be placed in context of this state’s abnormally low voting rate. Despite two residents running for president, New York was 41st out of 50 states in voter turnout in the 2016 general election, with just 57 percent of voting-eligible population casting a ballot.
But homeless New Yorkers face more barriers to voting than the general population. A 2009 federal report found that more than 40 percent of the country’s homeless living in a shelter have a physical or mental disability, which can make it harder to get to the polls. Many homeless people are immigrants, and may not be eligible to vote. People recently released from prison often become homeless. Those with a felony conviction can vote in New York, but only while on probation or after completing parole, and even then they need to re-register.
And, of course, there’s the lack of housing. Voting is based on geography, and many homeless people are moving often, with no set address. Some organizations like Picture the Homeless allow voters like Grant to list its office as their home address, which is legal. Others may be registered to a friend’s house, or to an address where they no longer live. “We do vote,” Sylvia Edwards said outside a homeless shelter in Long Island City, Queens. “It’s just that some people, when they are in a different borough, they don’t know where to vote.”
There are other barriers to voting, and perhaps chief among them is disillusionment with the government. Lowest-income voters were among the most likely to tell the U.S. Census Bureau that they did not vote in the 2016 general election because of a lack of interest. The most common reason given, among almost all income groups, was “did not like candidates or campaign issues.”
“The street homeless, most of them, they’re not going to vote,” said Charmel Lucas, the homeless woman living in a shelter near the Brooklyn Bridge. “And you know what? Where has voting even gotten them? In the streets, after working for many, many years. Homelessness is not, you know, somebody’s incompetence.”
In Lucas’ eyes, politicians lack empathy.
“We expect too much out of our politicians for voting,” she said. “They’re going to keep doing what they do. And as far as the homeless, I really don’t think they care if we vote or not. Because at the end of the day, they go home and go to bed.”
“You can register anywhere you’re domiciled. You can even put your residence down as the ‘park bench on the corner.’” – Matt Sollars, New York City Campaign Finance Board spokesman
In a cold basement community room with beige walls and a loud, droning air conditioning unit, a woman stood idly by the door. “What are you doing down here?” she asked.
“We’re registering people to vote!” said Allen Lloyd, a member of the NYC Votes Street Team.
He had been invited by Win, a nonprofit that runs shelters and support services for women and families across the city. It was August 2017, the week before the deadline to register for the 2017 primary election, and Win was running a voter registration drive across all of its shelters, including this one, in East Flatbush.
Lloyd was set up behind a table covered in registration forms and candy as well as red, white and blue rubber bracelets. It was the second day of the drive at this shelter, and business was slow. After two hours, just two residents had registered to vote for the first time. Another resident updated her address. A few others came down to the community room, only to decline the offer to register or fill out a survey about their voting habits.
Vernetta Neal had updated her address the day before, and her 18-year-old son registered for the first time. She had been living in Brooklyn for a decade, and had been homeless for almost a year. She took two buses to get to her old polling location in East New York to vote in last year’s presidential election, but by updating her address, she could avoid the long commute for this year’s election.
Neal said voting is important to her. “It’s important for everyone to give their opinions and their views and make it easier for us all to get along.”
She added, “A lot of people in homeless shelters give up because they feel like (they) have no hope. So the fact that (NYC Votes) comes to us instead of us having us look for (it) is great.”
These voter drives are especially important in homeless shelters “because there’s so little awareness of what the voting rights are in New York state,” said Matt Sollars, a spokesman for the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
“So many people that we talk to, they’re not aware that they can vote at a homeless shelter. They think you have to be at a residence,” he said. “But you can register anywhere you’re domiciled. You can even put your residence down as the ‘park bench on the corner.’”
Other nonprofits, including the National Coalition for the Homeless, run voter registration drives, and Win’s president and chief executive officer, Christine Quinn, was proud to join in. Quinn, the former speaker of the New York City Council, said that families with children are the “forgotten face of homelessness,” despite making up 70 percent of the city’s shelter population.
“They’re interacting with government all the time, but I don’t think government is thinking about them that much of the time,” Quinn said. “Are homeless people usually thought of as a voting bloc? Thought of as a group that you have to pay attention to to get elected? Absolutely not. … But if we’re going to make sure that people are not forgotten, that means in every way that society recognizes people. And one of those ways is as a voter.”
“We have a lot of power that we give away, and we’re in chains.” – Cecelia Grant, a homeless New Yorker
Grant got her vote counted in 2016, despite living on the street and having to try three times, but she didn’t think that poor and homeless voices should only be heard at the ballot box. “We have a lot of power that we give away, and we’re in chains,” she said.
Eighteen months after de Blasio’s press conference at the homeless shelter, there are just as many New Yorkers in shelters as there were then – more than 60,000, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. The city is legally required to provide shelter for those who want it, and the de Blasio administration is hoping to improve conditions, vowing to create 90 new homeless shelters over the next five years while phasing out other forms of shelter, like renting hotel rooms.
But the administration is constantly dealing with headaches, like shelter residents not being able to leave because landlords won’t take city-funded housing vouchers. New shelters routinely face neighborhood opposition, and the city is currently being sued by Bronxites who say their borough has more than its fair share of shelter beds. Still, de Blasio expresses optimism. As he wrote in a July editorial, his affordable housing program is ahead of schedule, on budget and helps even the poorest applicants. “We build for everyone,” he wrote, “because we want to remain a city for everyone.”
Grant said the poor and homeless need to flex their political muscle to get what they deserve. “We are always there. We are the stuff that keeps things moving,” she said. “The city workers, the people that sweep the streets every day, the people that work at McDonald’s every day, the people that serve your coffee. These people matter.”
With reporting by Sarina Trangle
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