Billy Cunningham has been eligible to cast a ballot almost as long as he’s lived in San Francisco.
“I’ve been here overs 40 years. I came to San Francisco about 10 or 11,” says Cunningham, sitting in an office at the nonprofit Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco.
The thing is, though: He hasn’t voted. Not even the chance to vote for America’s first black president could move him.
“Never really been into voting, politics and none of that,” he says.
Cunningham fell on hard times a while back, was homeless for a time. Now he’s living in a single-room-occupancy hotel. He also enrolled in a civics course offered by Episcopal Community Services.
“Voting came up one day and I registered to vote in class,” says Cunningham.
“Yeah,” chimes in Cunningham’s teacher, Katherine Powell. “Billy became a first-time voter as, and I’ll say this is because we’re the same age, a very mature adult.”
Powell says she’s inspired by Billy’s newfound passion for voting. “I just really like the fact that Billy is a voter and is spreading that enthusiasm to other students”
Powell’s civics course includes discussion of voting rights, how to read an election manual and the occasional visit from local election officials. It’s designed for people who are homeless. Or, like Cunningham, just getting back on their feet.
“A lot of people just haven’t had the chance to be engaged or somehow thought that their vote wouldn’t matter,” says Powell.
Black Americans cemented their right to vote 51 years ago with passage of the Voting Rights Act. In 1920, women broke down barriers to the ballot box.
But only in the last 30 years have homeless Americans done the same. Not only does their vote matter, say advocates, but you can cast that ballot even if you have no fixed address.
“Luckily you can,” says L.A. Community Action Network (LACAN) executive director Pete White. He says people can list a shelter or a public park where they sleep. They don’t even need to be that specific.
“On the voter registration affidavit there’s a line that says: address or cross streets,” explains White. “That one line, ‘or cross streets,’ came about as a result of houseless advocates fighting for a campaign to make sure people without homes were not disenfranchised.”
Last month, LACAN wrapped up a 30-day voter registration project on Skid Row, a stretch of downtown L.A. that’s home to a big concentration of shelters and other services. This month they’re focusing on locating registered voters in areas with high rates of homelessness to make sure they can vote if they want to. That includes people like TC Alexander, who lives in a tent on the sidewalk just outside the offices of LACAN.
After he feeds his dog some lunch, we duck inside the building to get away from the street noise. Alexander says he’s been homeless off and on since the mid-1980s.
Even so, Alexander rarely misses the chance to vote. When he was a kid, he joined his mom on voter registration drives across Los Angeles
“I’m going with my mother downtown, anywhere, at an outing, a concert. She was educating me about the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” says Alexander.
Thirty years ago Alexander participated in demonstrations at L.A. City Hall demanding the homeless be allowed to vote. It was around the time a group of homeless men sued Santa Barbara County when their voter registration forms were denied because they listed a public park as their home.
The men won. And the state of California revised its eligibility rules.
“You don’t need an ID to vote. Why should you need an address to vote,” says Alexander. “You had to fight for everything. We had to fight for that right for homeless people to vote as citizens of the United States.”
There’s an estimated 28,000 homeless people in the city of L.A. and about half a million nationwide — a massive, largely untapped voting bloc.
“We know on any given night there are hundreds of thousands of people who are homeless,” says Inner City Law Center policy director Jerry Jones. “And voting is especially important, given how poorly served people who are living in destitution are from our government.”
Jones says the November election in L.A. is unlike any in recent memory. And not because of who’s running for president. There’s a $1.2 billion bond measure on the ballot that supporters hope will spur construction of up to 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing over the next decade.
“So, showing up and voting is especially important to people who are experiencing homelessness (because) there is finally real hope of getting the resources we need to make a difference in this crisis in L.A.,” says Jones.
In San Francisco, voters are weighing Proposition Q. It aims to crack down on makeshift homeless encampments by requiring people to move into a shelter if space is available.
Proposition Q made for a lively discussion recently in that civics class Katherine Powell teaches at Episcopal Community Services.
It was Billy Cunningham’s first chance to consider its pros and cons.
“The city does need to be cleaned up, but where you gonna put these people?” asks Cunningham. “There are only four or five shelters, and they are overcrowded. I’d rather walk over people than to have people just pushed aside, and no telling what you gonna do with them.”
Cunningham says he hadn’t really planned to launch a one-man voter drive. But there is this friend of his, a Vietnam veteran who’s homeless.
“I believe he prefers to be on the streets, why I don’t know. But I believe he is a registered voter,” says Cunningham.
So maybe he’ll start there.