WASHINGTON - Nathaniel Hipps wasn’t planning to register to vote until he walked into the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and saw the sign for National Homeless and Low-Income Voter Registration Week.
Hipps, 59, who voted for the first time in 2010, needed to register again after moving from one shelter to another. He was encouraged to vote while in the shelter, but said others in his situation were less enthusiastic.
“Some are elderly, some are handicapped, some are mentally ill,” Hipps said. “Some don’t know where to vote because they’ve been locked up for so long.” And sometimes, he said, it seems like politicians didn’t care about the homeless.
In 2008, only 61 percent of Americans with incomes of $20,000 or lower were registered to vote, compared to the 71 percent average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Just 48.3 percent of low-income citizens voted, compared to the 64 national turnout. average. In both 2008 and 2004, employed people were more likely to vote than those who were unemployed.
“Just the fact that being homeless, the difficulties that makes in terms of complying with whatever requirements there are for registering,” said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, one of the groups helping to support National Homeless and Low Income Voter Registration Week. “Sometimes they have more pressing concerns - like where they are going to sleep. Or eat.”
Hannah Z. Gisness, a student at George Washington University and an intern with the National Coalition for the Homeless, helped others like Hipps register at the library and answered questions about when and where to vote.
“I’m trying to get anyone who walks by,” Gisness said about 1:30 p.m. as patrons trickled past. “I’ve been here since 9:30. We’ve gotten a dozen or so.”
Students were planning to walk through the city over the weekend to help register homeless individuals on the street. Overall, 104 people were registered at the library, one of the few public indoor spaces that allows homeless people to hang out during the day, said Neil Donovan, executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless. Similar drives took places across the nation, particularly in larger cities.
Gisness also answered question about addresses – under the law, individuals with no permanent residence can list a street corner or a park as their residence. Mailing address can be harder, but St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood allows those registering to vote to use the church’s address.
An address is just one barrier the homeless and low-income face when trying to register to vote, said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Some states require voters to pay for necessary voter ID. Not everyone is able to find a fixed mailing address. And homeless people may not have copies of their birth certificates or have a driver’s license. “Obviously, we should have in our nation as many people as possible vote,” Roman said. “These people are very likely going to be affected by changes in government or government supported program because of the supreme poverty.”
Hipps, who grew up in the 1960s and 70s, said he didn’t believe in politics.
“I question the authority of the government,” he said. “I didn’t believe in the system.”
That changed when he was in a shelter after being released from prison. He began to read books on philosophy and social psychology – one of his most recent reads was Plato’s “The Republic.” Although he plans to be at the ballot box Nov. 6, Hipps isn’t sure who he is going to vote for.
“Last time I voted for Mayor [Vincent C.] Gray,” he said of the District’s embattled leader. “He’s more concerned with maintain his job than helping the rest of the city.”
Reach reporter Emily Wilkins at email@example.com or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.