Getting out the vote among the homeless

I noticed two stories about voting among the homeless this week that reminded me of my experience organizing a voter registration drive at an organization that serves homeless teenagers and young adults. The first, in City & State, asks the question "Do the Homeless Vote?" and details the various barriers – including polling site confusion and inconsistent addresses – that can prevent homeless people from heading to the polls in New York City. In the second, "I'm Homeless and I Vote" - from the Seattle magazine The Stranger - a former business owner who is now homeless in the Seattle area describes the experience of modern homelessness and the lack of response from politicians to the root causes of homelessness like poverty and limited affordable housing.

From City & State:

The homeless often move in and out of homelessness, and by definition often do not have a fixed residence, but [the National Coalition for the Homeless] 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.

When I worked at a drop-in center for homeless LGBTQ teenagers and young adults in Northern Manhattan, I organized a month-long voter registration drive in Spring 2016, just in time for the New York State presidential primaries. I printed a bunch of voter registration forms and went table to table during breakfast and lunch encouraging people to sign up. I ended up registering about 25 people, including a few staff members, and I used agency postage to mail the forms before the primary deadline. It was easy to do, but it was one of the most satisfying things I've accomplished in my social service career.

Skepticism was a problem. Many of the young people parroted the familiar "What's the point? My vote doesn't matter" refrain. I couldn't blame them — they were mostly gay and trans people of color kicked out of their homes and discriminated against because of their identities. Many were skeptical that a politician would genuinely represent them.

Sometimes, however, peer pressure overwhelmed their guardedness. Excited teenagers won over those lunchtime companions who affected a hardened cynicism. 

The other, much more tangible problem was what address the young people should include on their registration form. Some stayed at the drop-in center overnight when there was space. Others lived in transitional housing or engaged in survival sex, spending the night with strangers in exchange for sex. Meanwhile, others crashed with friends or slept on the street and in the subway. Overall, few maintained consistent addresses. The City & State piece addresses this issue.

I recommended that the individuals without a stable address list the address of the drop-in center or a friend's house where they often stayed. 

One young transgender man was particularly excited to vote. For a few weeks leading up to the election, he discussed the research he was doing and the tough decision of whether to vote for Bernie or Hillary. 

Yet, on election day, he seemed reluctant to visit the polling place. I reminded him how excited he had been for weeks, but he still seemed apprehensive. It took me a little while to realize that he was nervous to vote for the first time. He wanted some support.

So I said I wanted to check out the energy near the polling place and suggested I walk over with him. He agreed to accompany me and we walked a few blocks to a school. As we approached, I told him how to check in to the table by last name and that he didn't need to show ID. I remembered the first time I voted when I was 18 — I also felt scared to try something new, to make a mistake, to be an adult. 

Finally, the young man started to walk inside and I told him I'd see him when he returned to the drop-in.

 "You're not going to wait for me?" he asked, betraying his apprehension.

"Na, you don't need me," I said. "You've already done the work getting here."  

He laughed nervously, said I was right and walked inside.

A half hour later, he returned to the drop-in center bubbling with energy. He showed off his 'I Voted' sticker and shared the experience with other clients, encouraging them to register and vote in November's general election.

It was beautiful. 

So how to replicate this experience, especially among young people and new voters?

We have to make it easier for transient individuals to update an address and we have to provide support on Election Day. Bureaucracy and governmental proceedings can be intimidating, especially for people long screwed by policy and by those in power. We always hear that we 'should' go vote, but we rarely hear about the actual (pretty simple) process. 

Here are two solutions:

1.) Make voter registration a part of the intake process at shelters, social service organizations and supportive housing sites.

2.) Go to the polls as a team.  Social service staff can rally a group of new voters to serve as a support system, arrange a time to head to the polling place and get an experienced voter to lead them. 

My story on NYC's protections for undocumented immigrants in DHS shelters

After about a month of reporting and researching, I wrote a piece for City Limits about New York City's protections for undocumented immigrants connected with city agencies, including the Department of Homeless Services. When Trump announced his immigration executive order threatening to defund “sanctuary city” localities that did not comply with federal government requests for information, I first wondered what would stop federal immigration forces from indiscriminately raiding homeless shelters – often barracks-style converted basketball courts that house scores, or even hundreds, of the city's most vulnerable residents.

I remember going to school in Boston during Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids on factories in New Bedford and at a supermarket in Chelsea. And those people were workers who clearly contributed to the economy and paid taxes. Fear and suspicion pervaded immigrant communities in New England and, likely, the rest of the country. I feared the harassment of non-citizens in shelters who depend on city resources – in this case, incurring costs for housing, case management and meals.

In the past, NYPD, as well as police departments from Long Island and New Jersey, regularly accessed DHS records to identify and arrested individuals with outstanding warrants. ICE, however, cannot do the same. In fact, the federal government cannot access city records related to immigration status except for immigrants with felony convictions.

I spoke with several shelter staff, immigration advocates and legal experts. The consensus is that the city's protections remain strong for safeguarding the information of undocumented immigrants. Federal immigration law sounds scary but remains quite vague. It also lacks the power to compel cities and states to record or turn over confidential and protected information.

Improving safety without building a Shelter-to-Prison Pipeline

Department of Homeless Services security guards – called peace officers or special officers – earn a starting salary of $31,482/year to maintain order at shelters where many of the residents have severe mental illness and where everyone experiences the anxieties, agitations and heightened stress levels associated with poverty. At family shelters, young children mingle with teens and adults and domestic violence is common. So is substance use. 

Here is a list of special working conditions copy and pasted from the DHS Special Officer application:

"Some of the physical activities performed by Special Officers and environmental conditions experienced are: working outdoors in all kinds of weather; walking and/or standing in an assigned area during a tour; driving or sitting in a patrol car during a tour while remaining alert; running after a fleeing suspect; climbing up stairs; may assist in carrying an injured adult; gripping persons to prevent escape; restraining a suspect by use of handcuffs; may be required to detect odors such as those caused by smoke or gas leaks; engaging in hand to hand struggles to subdue a suspect resisting arrest; being physically active for prolonged periods of time; understanding verbal communication over a radio with background noise; reading and writing under low light conditions; carrying or wearing heavy equipment and wearing a bullet-resistant vest."

It's a demanding, physical job. As the face of authority and of the shelter itself, peace officers tend to bear the brunt of shelter residents' anger. Yet, they lack the de-escalation training of a social worker or the authority of a police officer. Social service staff and mental health workers do not spend nights at the shelters - the special officers are the only ones there. The officers deserve extensive social service training and support to better work with clients who experience emotional disturbances as well as those who need to save face and never back down from perceived challenges. Meanwhile, residents deserve compassion, patience and understanding of their day-to-day frustrations, including those that stem from discomfort, powerlessness and lack of solitude.

Two days ago, the City announced that the NYPD will broaden oversight at city shelters and assign additional cops to manage the whole force of 771 peace officers. This could be a positive development: NYPD will provide more training on working with emotionally disturbed persons (EDP) and victims of abuse. The move will likely foster more accountability.

Nevertheless, When the law enforcement presence increases, arrests increase. The new chain of command could lead to many unintended consequences.

For every 'bad apple' violent offender who makes the environment dangerous or unhealthy for everyone else, there are certainly many more low-level offenders whose minor misdeeds (open containers, sex work, marijuana use) ensnare them in the criminal justice system. That's what happens at public schools where the presence of police officers means the criminal justice system now punishes issues (like petty theft or hallway scuffles) previously handled in-house by the school. That has led to more children and young adults yoked with records that weigh them down for life, lead to more severe sentences after violations (accumulating offenses or 'strikes') and inhibit employment and housing opportunities. 

NYPD Deputy Chief Edward Thompson said the new oversight structure will promote collaboration between peace officers and police. Again, that is a mix of good and bad. 

Would police encourage peace officers to carry broken windows policing into shelters in order to make more arrests for minor quality of life violations? Would they impose a form of indiscriminate stop-and-frisk? Would police and collaborating peace officers safely and reasonably manage individuals with mental illness? Or would they try to overpower emotionally disturbed people rather than patiently work with them? 

Last year, NYPD officers, plus cops from New Jersey and Long Island, combed shelter rolls to hunt residents with outstanding warrants. Such warrants often relate to unpaid citations for quality of life violations like open containers or public urination, the violations that already disproportionately punish low-income people. Such fines also pose a more severe financial burden to the working poor or individuals on a fixed income.

Perhaps this is a smart structural change when we consider the sprawling, unsafe shelter system, but, we gotta remember, the move does not treat the core issues of an over-reliance on temporary shelters and the failure to prioritize and develop permanent supportive housing. It's just a different style of managing the warehouse.

Bottom line: However the City restructures the security system within shelters, we really, really need more supportive services to assist homeless individuals and to prevent homelessness. A smaller homeless population means fewer problems at overcrowded homeless shelters.