Every four years, some new American demographic group gets their 15 minutes of fame during the Presidential election cycle. Also known as the swing voters, they are the target group for election ads and Presidential rallies. Remember the Reagan Democrats? Soccer Moms? NPR Republicans? These groups supposedly dramatically influenced the results of past Presidential elections.
This year some experts think the group to win over is the “purple people,” consisting of those middle-class, suburban families who lean neither extremely red nor extremely blue.
Whatever the label or color of these apparently influential people may be, groups mobilize their voting base in order to have a political influence. From new voters trying to rock the election, to older voters who are worried about their medical benefits.
For years, advocates for people who are homeless have done the same. They visit shelters, affordable housing developments, and drop-in centers to help Americans experiencing homelessness register to vote.
In Los Angeles, the agency I run hosts a polling place, allowing people who are homeless to vote without having to go across town. In New York City, registration assistance is being provided to the more than 45,000 people living in homeless shelters to ensure that everyone has a voice come election day. Likewise, in Washington D.C., voter outreach is being conducted among homeless and low-income residents.
Those who work toward ending homelessness in this country know that the person sitting in the Oval Office has powerful influence over funding and policies affecting homeless Americans, from housing and medical care to emergency assistance.
But can small voter registration drives among people who are homeless really have a significant political effect, especially when only 10 percent of homeless Americans vote?
Consider this: In 2010, more than 600,000 Americans were currently homeless during a week-long count conducted in communities across the country. That same year, more than 1.6 million Americans were homeless at some point during the calendar year.
How significant are 600,000 votes? To put it in perspective, the difference between the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates in 2000 was less than 600,000 votes.
Of course, we elect our President based on state electoral votes rather than by popular vote alone, but in some districts a mere few thousand votes could sway the outcome.
No wonder political activists on all sides are pushing for or against Voter Reform Laws that would require photo identification, proof of citizenship, or eliminate same-day voter registration. This would make it far more difficult for people struggling on the fringes of society, like homeless Americans, to make their voices heard.
Organizations like the National Coalition for the Homeless are working hard to help people who are homeless register to vote and are fighting laws that make voting more difficult.
Mobilizing voters is as American as apple pie and a white picket fence. Helping homeless Americans influence a political campaign, so that they too can have a white picket fence in front of their own permanent home, would truly be the American Dream.
Photo by Tim Olson.