Homeless people have always faced barriers to voting. The pandemic is throwing up more.
Homeless people, among them many LGBTQ people experiencing homelessness, generally face challenges in participating in the voting process at the best of times. This election year, the coronavirus pandemic is throwing up some particularly tough barriers to voting for these vulnerable populations.
Advocates for the voting rights of LGBTQ homeless people say that the numerous obstacles such voters face include changes in the locations and number of polling places and the challenges of remote voting.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, transgender and nonbinary adults are more likely to experience unsheltered homelessness than cisgender adults. Studies have found that between 20% and 45% of homeless youth are LGBTQ, according to the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute, which focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.
The pandemic may contribute to more homelessness for LGBTQ people, advocates say, particularly LGBTQ people of color. A Human Rights Campaign report released in May found that 14% of LGBTQ people of color had asked for delays in paying rent since the pandemic began.
Voting while homeless during a pandemic
Eric Tars, legal director at the National Homelessness Law Center, said many of the typical barriers to voting homeless people face have been exacerbated this year. They may not know that their polling site has changed until Election Day itself, for example. They may be unable to get to the new site once they learn about it.
"Public transit has been cut back because of the decreased ridership with everyone working from home, and just getting to a polling place might be a challenge," Tars said.
Although homeless people have the right to vote, requirements for a mailing address to register vary from state to state. In Illinois and Delaware, mailing addresses can be shelters and social service agencies. In Oregon, homeless people can list the county election clerk's office and pick up a ballot there. In New Jersey, they can provide a "contact point" or a location where they spend most of their time.
Tars said: "If you get up to the front of the line and they say, 'Is this you at this address?' and you say, 'No, I'm not at that address anymore,' I don't know how a poll worker might respond to the fact that that person doesn't have an address anymore, and therefore they might say that person isn't eligible to vote at that precinct and not tell people where they actually could go."
Tars said he is concerned about increased homelessness during the pandemic, and advises lawyers working with people facing eviction to apply for an absentee ballot right away so they can receive it before they lose their housing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that in the context of the pandemic, people who are living unsheltered should be allowed to remain where they are, noting that "the risks associated with sleeping outdoors or in an encampment setting are different than from staying indoors in a congregate setting ... Outdoor settings may allow people to increase physical distance between themselves and others."
But police have at times ignored that guidance and conducted sweeps of encampments. Tars said that during these sweeps, identification documents are often lost. Homeless people who have lost their documents are then prevented by voter ID requirements from casting ballots.
The challenges of outreach to LGBTQ homeless people
Nonprofit organizations often fill gaps in the system by providing the information they need to homeless people seeking to vote. Pre-pandemic, volunteers would set up booths, speak to homeless people at dining halls, and do other kinds of outreach.
This year, efforts have been mixed. Advocates in some areas of the country have been able to muster volunteers, but in others, organizations that would typically do this work have been unable to due to safety concerns or financial struggles. Smaller groups and nonprofits that center LGBTQ people's experiences may be particularly hard hit.
Meghan Maury, policy director at the National LGBTQ Task Force, said some smaller organizations across the country have struggled to continue outreach efforts: "Other organizations we work with, like some of the groups in Miami, their staff has been hit so hard by COVID-19 that there are almost no services because it just doesn't feel safe, so there's a wide variance across the country."
Many organizations have had to lay off paid staff in the past few months to continue operating. This makes them even more reliant on volunteers. Some staff members may be immunocompromised and not feel safe doing outreach work, Maury said: "People living with HIV who are working at these organizations don't have any risk tolerance for being in spaces where COVID-19 is possible."
In addition to these problems, Maury said, a rule change proposed by the Trump administration would make matters worse. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rule change, which would allows discrimination against transgender women in single-sex shelters, could affect transgender homeless people's ability to vote before it even goes into effect, they said: If shelters went ahead and refused to provide services to transgender women, knowing that the rule was going to be implemented, many might find it impossible to find a a place where they could receive mail.
Bias against LGBTQ homeless people at the polls
Ashlee Marie Preston is the founder of #YouAreEssential, described on its website as "a social impact campaign & national relief fund that awards grants to grassroots organizations and mutual aid networks working directly with vulnerable communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic."
Preston recently shared her experience of voting while homeless in the early 2000s. She said she faced racism, transphobia, and bias against homeless people at her polling site.
"And so I was getting stares because some of the folks probably knew that I was trans and then also I was getting treated like crap because people were just looking at me because I was homeless," Preston said. "And one of the workers came over, like, 'Do you have what you need? This is a polling site.' So basically they act like I was a grizzly bear wandering through the woods trying to find a snack in a warm cabin."
In addition to such treatment, transgender homeless people face additional barriers at polling places, including bias against them on the part of poll workers. Their identification and gender presentation may not match, and they may have recently changed their name, which can cause poll workers to give them provisional ballots or out them as transgender.
Donald H. Whitehead Jr., president of the board of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said homeless people are already treated unfairly because housed people believe they will make them sick. That may be even more true during a pandemic.
"People tend to maintain their distance already, so if you take that person who people are already afraid of and put them in a situation where a person has to be in line for six or seven hours, that's going to be a lot worse for that homeless person," Whitehead said.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.