How do religious groups help America’s homeless vote?
The lower one’s income is, the less likely they are to vote; religious leaders and faith-based charities aim to change this by helping the homeless to vote
The Rev. Kim Jackson ministers to the homeless in downtown Atlanta, and a hot topic of discussion among them — as it is among others around the country — is the upcoming election.
Usually, voting is low on the list of priorities for homeless Americans, says the Rev. Jackson. First and foremost, they’re “hustling to get food” and to find a place to sleep. But this year, her homeless congregants are fired up about going to the polls — and they’re encouraging other members of their community to do the same.
As Steven, a man who currently lives in a shelter, tells the pastor that he’s registered and intends to vote but still isn’t sure who to cast his ballot for, another man — who also lives in a shelter — interrupts with a suggestion, “Biden!”
He laughs as Rev. Jackson, who’s recording her interviews for me on her phone, moves her camera in other man’s direction. Sitting on the edge of the bright afternoon light, the man repeats himself: “Biden!” As he debates whether or not one should vote according to party or candidate, the Rev. Jackson and Steven, who wears a black baseball cap and a black mask, step aside to finish their interview. Standing in the shadow of a tall building with marble columns and glass plate windows, Steven expresses concern for the homeless. “I don’t know if my one vote will help change that or not,” he reflects. “Do you?”
“I think every vote matters,” the Rev. Jackson responds.
“Yup. But you got a lot of people who don’t vote,” Steven answers, adding that he has been urging his friends — unhoused and sheltered — to vote.
The moment speaks to something the Rev. Jackson described when I interviewed her last week: the vibrant conversation about politics and voting happening in the homeless community. While they are not a sought after voting bloc for politicians seeking local or national office, the significance of casting a ballot this year has not been lost on them.
“I feel like we have a peer pressure campaign running right now,” the Rev. Jackson tells me. “People are excited about voting.”
On a recent Sunday, at the park where she leads the Church of the Common Ground — an Episcopalian congregation she describes as “wall-less” and that, in ordinary times, is made up of both homeless and housed parishioners — the Rev. Jackson overheard at least “five different (homeless) parishioners saying to others, ‘When are you going to vote?’”
Though she emphasizes that the push to participate in the democratic process is “very much internal to (the homeless) community,” she was instrumental in getting these people registered in the first place.
“The real work,” she says, was helping the homeless understand why it was beneficial to get an identification card, a process that automatically registers one to vote in Georgia. The Rev. Jackson and others explained to the unhoused that having identification and an address would allow them to receive and cash the federal government’s stimulus checks.
“We could stack up: ‘Here’s a way being registered can help you with some of these larger life goals,’” the Rev. Jackson says. Once they had their IDs and were registered to vote, their enthusiasm took on a life of its own.
A similar dynamic is playing out across the country as numerous churches and faith-based organizations facilitate the homeless vote, whether intentionally or simply by serving as a hub for those without a home. While some locales provide an address for the homeless, other churches will function as polling sites where the unhoused will be able to cast their ballots.
A Christian responsibility
America’s homeless — a group variously referred to as the “unhoused” or “unsheltered” — number approximately half a million, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers. While there are no reliable numbers about the voting rate of the homeless, research has shown that the less resources people have, the less likely they are to vote.
“In the 2012 election, 80.2% of those making more than $150,000 voted, while only 46.9% of those making less than $10,000 voted,” writes Sean McElwee, co-founder and executive director of the think tank Data for Progress, in Politico. McElwee finds that each income bracket votes at a 3.7% higher rate than the one below it.
Religious leaders say it’s a duty to get out the vote of every American, regardless of their income.
“I think that’s part of our Christian responsibility,” the Rev. Jackson says. Homeless “often feel like non-citizens and I keep highlighting for them, ‘No, you do matter. Your voice matters and you have a right to advocate for yourselves.’”
The Rev. Jackson and other Church of the Common Ground leaders “talk with our members a lot about God calling us to build and be a community with one another … the New Testament is all about building community and one of the ways in the U.S. we build community is through the democratic process of voting.”
“Because we’re all made in the image of God, we all deserve to have our voice heard by participating equally and not having the voting process just available to those with money and access,” says Rev. Emily Culp Ashby of Cleveland, Ohio.
Lost without mail
As the leader of a United Church of Christ congregation, the Rev. Ashby didn’t set out to do a homeless voter drive. But one began when a group of “very active local residents” asked if they could put a voter registration box on church grounds, which have remained open throughout the pandemic to serve the local unhoused population.
The Rev. Ashby estimates that about half of her congregation is homeless. Many already use the church as their postal address, she says, adding that the church has set up mailboxes for them where they will be able to receive absentee ballots.
In Salt Lake City, Catholic Community Services’s Weigand Homeless Resource Center serves a similar function. Director Randy Chappell explains that in addition to offering the unsheltered a computer lab, housing and employment programs and a place to shower, the Weigand Center also offers the homeless a mailing address for bureaucratic things like IDs, Social Security and voter registration.
Their incoming mail is distributed on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Chappell says, but “people even come Monday afternoon asking for their mail — there is a lot of follow-up from the unsheltered population.”
The mail is “an important piece of (a homeless person’s) life,” he adds, just as it is “in everyone’s life.”
In previous elections, Chappell saw absentee ballots come to the Weigand Center. “There’s no reason why it wouldn’t happen this time,” he says, adding that he also expects some of the unhoused will go to Vivint Smart Home Arena, one of many NBA venues around the country that will function as a polling place, to vote.
Similarly, the Rev. Jackson says that most of the homeless she encouraged to register for IDs will not be voting by mail but, rather, in-person as there is a polling site directly across from where many sleep.
Church and voting center
In Pasadena, California, the parking lot of All Saints Episcopal Church became a small homeless encampment after COVID-19 led to a shut down of a number of the city’s shelters.
Assisting priest Susan Russell says that while she understands getting the homeless into stable housing is the “the most effective” way to “end the cycle of homelessness,” the church is taking a holistic approach that also includes assisting them in their efforts to vote.
Not only can the unhoused use All Saints’ address to register and receive ballots, the church will also serve as a Flex Vote Center at the end of the month as part of the county’s Voting Solutions for All People program.
In Los Angeles County, the Rev. Russell explains the goal is to place voting centers close to those who might have trouble getting to the polls, “particularly in areas where transportation is an issue — and in areas where people are without housing or are housing insecure — so they can exercise their franchise to vote.”
“I’m proud to be part of a congregation assisting in this effort,” the Rev. Russell remarks. “I’m also proud to live in a state that creates systems to make voting as accessible as possible to all eligible voters (rather than) putting up roadblocks to make it harder to vote.”
Like other clergy interviewed for this story, the Rev. Russell argues that helping all Americans vote is religious work.
“As Episcopalians, one of the core provinces we make in our baptismal covenant is to respect the dignity of every human being and to strive for peace and justice,” Rev. Russell says. “We believe that one of the ways we live out that baptismal promise is through active participation in the political process at the city, state, and national level. It’s not about partisan advocacy. It’s about using our moral voice to advocate for policies that are in alignment with our understanding of the gospel.”
While the Rev. Jackson has worked with the homeless for years, she admits that, like most Americans, she still was holding on to some stereotypes about the unhoused. But their apparent enthusiasm about participating in this election has upended those ideas.
“Political engagement wasn’t something I expected,” she reflects. “I didn’t expect conversations about politics — the same conversations that those of us with resources are having about the benefits or cons of Donald Trump are happening on the streets.”
“I want to emphasize that people who are experiencing homelessness are basically telling their peers to go vote ... it literally is like, ‘Hey, man, when you gonna go vote?’ I think that’s beautiful and very worth celebrating.”