Seen and not heard: homeless people absent from election even as ranks grow


In San Francisco and beyond, homelessness makes voting nearly impossible and all but ensures the issue has little visibility on the campaign trail

It is no mean feat to cast a ballot when home is a doorway or a tent beneath a freeway underpass. When your mailing address is General Delivery, or the Prison Legal Services office, or someone elses room at an SRO hotel. When the hunt for a voting precinct vies with the search for food and shelter.

Even so, the presidential contest has been front of mind at the St Anthony Foundation dining room in San Franciscos gritty Tenderloin district.

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The first seating at St Anthony is for families and the elderly. Lunch starts at 10am and is often the only meal of the day for people such as Tom Orrell, who is picking at his turkey dish and talking politics.

His home is a patch of sidewalk at the corner of Jones Street and Golden Gate Avenue. His party, the Democrats. His candidate, Bernie Sanders but he plans to vote for Hillary Clinton in November, even though hes not sure America is ready for a female president. His issue is healthcare, with a dash of education.

The way I look at it, weve got to have healthy kids, says the 62-year-old former construction worker, who votes whether he has a roof or not. For two years, he has not. To get them healthy, we need to have education. Were falling down in both. To have a bright future, we need better healthcare.

Nearly half of the St Anthony diners are homeless, and the rest are extremely low income. Volunteers registered 60 diners to vote before the California primary on 7 June. Another registration drive is planned for October.

The issue of homelessness, however, has largely been absent from the campaign trail in 2016, even though it is a priority across the nation.

Throughout the primary season, the Guardian asked American voters to name matters they care about but that the packed field of Republicans and three Democratic candidates who had eyes set on the Oval Office did not address to their satisfaction. Homelessness was among them. They are not alone.

Since last autumn, the state of Hawaii and cities along the west coast have declared homelessness states of emergency. In New York, where people have a legal right to shelter, calls to the citys 311 line complaining about homeless people rose this winter, according to the New York Times.

In Los Angeles County where the vacancy rate is less than 3% in some areas and 500,000 affordable housing units are needed officials announced in May that the number of homeless people has risen 5.7% in the last year, to 46,874. Thats nearly half the homeless population in huge, temperate California.

People form a queue outside St Anthonys dining room as they wait to get a free meal, in San Franciscos Tenderloin district. Photograph: Gabrielle Lurie for the Guardian

The latest federal count, conducted in January 2015, placed the number of homeless people in the US at 564,708. Thats almost as many people who live in the entire state of Wyoming. More than three-quarters of the countrys homeless people are of voting age.

Not that youd know it to listen to the candidates who survived longest in the mud-slinging contest to pick the Democratic and Republican nominees for president.

During a San Francisco campaign swing a month ago, Sanders voiced surprise at the prevalence of homeless people in this graceful, generous city, which spends around $200m a year on homeless services, according to the municipal budget analyst.

Just been in San Francisco for a few hours, the Vermont senator told a crowd at a union rally, and its stunning to see people sleeping out in the street.

Hillary Clinton held a May rally in an ornate historic building just a block from the St Anthony Foundation dining room; the former secretary of state backs efforts to help homeless youth and veterans, although those positions are hidden deep in her campaign website.

For his part, real estate mogul Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has no platform on homelessness, although the issue did arise in August.

Thats when two drunk Trump supporters in Boston awakened a 58-year-old homeless Hispanic man by urinating on his face. Scott Leader, 38, and Steve Leader, 30, then ripped off his blankets and sleeping bag, riffled through his belongings and beat him with a metal pipe and their fists, breaking his nose.

While he was being booked into jail, according to the police report, the older brother said it was OK to assault the victim, because he was Hispanic and homeless.

Scott also stated Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported, the police report continued, although the victim is a legal resident. Scott also said he was arrest[ed] because white people always are and never the minorities.

When asked about the assault at a press conference in New Hampshire, Trump told reporters he had not heard about it, but that it would be a shame.

Then he paused and continued: I will say the people that are following me are very passionate. They love this country. They want this country to be great again. And they are very passionate.

Two days later, Trump revised his comments via Twitter: Boston incident is terrible. We need energy and passion, but we must treat each other with respect. I would never condone violence.

In May, the brothers were sentenced to state prison after pleading guilty to causing bodily injury while committing a civil rights violation, among other charges.

In a piece outlining candidates positions, San Franciscos Street Sheet called the incident Trumps worst moment on homelessness, although it noted that there are so many choices.

Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks did not respond to emails asking about the Republicans stand on homelessness.

Felix Estrada Garcia, left, sits on the sidewalk in the Tenderloin. More than 70 people in the citys master voting list cite General Delivery as their mailing address. Photograph: Gabrielle Lurie for the Guardian

There are no good statistics on how many homeless people are registered to vote nationwide, although the National Coalition for the Homeless estimated in 2012 that only one-tenth of unhoused persons actually exercise the right to vote.

Court cases in the 1980s and 1990s established the right of homeless people to vote even if they do not have a traditional residence. Some states, including California, require a mailing address to register but allow people to use the cross streets where they normally sleep to figure out their precinct.

In the master voting list for San Francisco, for example, at least 140 people registered using the address of the plain, blocky building that houses the public defenders office and Prisoner Legal Services, among other government entities. More than 70 list General Delivery as their mailing address.

Maria Foscarinis, the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said that in recent years new laws are making it more difficult for homeless and other poor people to vote, including requirements for photo identification.

Homeless people are among the most marginalized populations in the United States, Foscarinis said. Its really hard to get out of homelessness once youre in it. Not being able to affect the political process makes that cycle just that much harder to break.

Just ask Charles Cooper, a neat and dignified 64-year-old having lunch on Wednesday at the St Anthony Foundation dining room. He is not currently registered to vote, having just returned to San Francisco after six months in Atlanta.

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