Polling site at PS 375 Jackie Robinson School in Brooklyn on Election Day, Tuesday, November 3, 2020. Voting. (302654)
Credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The countdown is on, as we wind down to the Primary Election in NYC––to be held on Aug. 23––with early voting taking place from Aug. 13 through Aug. 21. Individuals across the city will be heading to the polls in their respective communities to vote for their U.S. House of Representatives and state senators. 

But for homeless individuals, exercising their right to vote isn’t as simple as heading down to the polls and casting a ballot. 

The state requires that individuals register to vote in the district where they have invested interest such as property rights, an established residence, where they work, or attend school. This poses a problem for homeless individuals who may have been displaced from their communities. As a result, many homeless individuals may opt out of voting because they don’t think they meet the requirements. The problem with this is that in a city like New York where one in every 106 individuals are homeless, a disproportionate number of our population goes underrepresented. 

Individuals can have a profound effect on the community in which they live by actively participating in government. Constituents can influence policies that determine minimum wage, work conditions, and social services programs. They can also voice their opinions on budgetary decisions that provide additional resources to education, housing, and social services. 

As of late, voting has been categorized as a healthy habit, creating a reciprocal relationship between overall health and civic activities. The reason for this is that individuals who vote often report feeling a greater sense of agency—that is, not feeling victimized by their circumstances. Individuals who vote can develop stronger connections to their communities which can combat social isolation, thus creating a better quality of life.  

For homeless individuals, connecting with neighbors, talking to elected officials, and engaging civically, can make them more visible and less stigmatized. “There are so many people who are homeless and when you speak to them, you don’t know,” says a community member from Flatbush, Brooklyn. “Connecting with the individual puts their humanness front and center, you no longer see someone who is homeless.”

Civic engagement enables us to unite for a common goal which encourages trust, empathy, human connection, and a foundation for problem solving within communities. These “protective factors” also pose as a buffer against the stress of homelessness; it builds resilience and supports better overall outcomes.

While there have been efforts to support homeless individuals in exercising their right to vote, not enough research has been conducted to date to determine their efficacy.  

Community-based organizations can provide voting support to individuals experiencing homelessness in the following ways:

·   Incorporating voter registration questions in intake forms

·   Registering individuals on-site (if possible)

·   Contacting the Board of Elections to obtain registration and poll site information

·   Assisting individuals in obtaining the appropriate identification documents to bring to the poll site

·   Supporting the individual in transferring poll sites to a more convenient location to ensure accessibility

·   Obtaining an absentee ballot (if applicable)

·   Ensuring that voter registration materials are available onsite throughout the year to ensure engagement during election periods

·   Organizing poll walk parties to encourage voters to travel to the polls together

Currently qualifications to vote by absentee ballot in New York allows individuals to request an absentee ballot if an individual is absent from their county or the five boroughs on election day. However, this excludes homeless individuals who may be residing in their county of origin on Election Day but may be unable to travel to the poll site due to barriers such as transportation or finances. While voters who are sure they are registered but are turned away at the polls can obtain an affidavit ballot, this information is not widely publicized.

Arming ourselves with information can poise individuals to actively participate in our country’s democracy and ensure that our government reflects the needs of those it serves. 

Allysha Bryant is pursuing a dual degree, Master of Arts in social work and doctorate in social welfare at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work. She is currently interning with the National Association of Social Workers, New York State Chapter.

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