In New York, Homeless and Making Plans to Vote
At 7 a.m. on Monday, the line for the soup kitchen snaked through a hallway of St. Bartholomew’s Church in Midtown Manhattan as men and a few women, bundled in layers of worn jackets and sweatshirts, waited for a breakfast of mixed greens and egg noodles with beef donated by the nearby Waldorf Astoria.
On Tuesday, a handful of soup kitchen regulars will stand in lines at polling places around New York City to cast their votes in a presidential contest where the struggles of poverty rarely made their way into the national debate.
But with the help of the League of Women Voters, volunteers with Crossroads Community Services, a nonprofit founded by the church, held voter registration drives in August and September. Homeless people are guaranteed the right to register to vote in New York despite not having fixed addresses as a result of a lawsuit argued by the Coalition for the Homeless in 1984.
Wendy Range, 51, signed up, registering for the first time since the 1990s. “It was too important to not have a voice,” she said.
Ms. Range said she left an abusive home in Dansville, N.Y., where she was discriminated against as a teenager for being gay. Now, she chuckles at the memory of her first vote at 18 when she supported Ronald Reagan. But she grew serious when discussing how her failure to vote over two decades began with apathy and was reinforced by poverty.
Ms. Range, who had attended college and had worked on lighting crews for Off Broadway shows, said her finances grew tenuous in 2008 and she lost her job to budget cuts in 2010. She said she could no longer afford her $1,500-a-month studio in Chelsea and became homeless.
She also had no time to think about elections. “Think about being on the street,” she said during an interview at St. Bartholomew’s where she is a volunteer and a client. “It’s difficult to find somewhere to use the bathroom. It’s difficult to find something to eat. Imagine that, and how do I get to the polls?”
But Ms. Range, who recently found a little work, said she had noticed changes in the soup line and was moved to register to vote. “A lot of people out here are working,” she said. “Security guards. Men in suits. What the hell are they doing here? They’re working, but they are not making enough.”
As of Wednesday, there were 36,520 adults in city shelters overseen by the Department of Homeless Services. As a voting bloc, homeless adults could be powerful, but many are uninterested and overwhelmed. “They are living in crisis and dealing with a lot of immediate needs, and that may prohibit them from voting,” Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, said.
The organization distributed around 1,500 fliers in shelters for single adults last week, Ms. Routhier said. The flier says voting could influence local and federal housing policies. “At all levels of government, these people have the power to impact your lives,” she said.
Vance R. Hinton, who registered two years ago, agreed that voting is an important civic duty, but at the same time he questioned what impact homeless people could have.
Born and raised in Harlem within earshot of “the organ and cheers” of Yankee Stadium, Mr. Hinton, 62, went to college with the help of basketball scholarships but fell on hard times after a longtime relationship ended in 2003. He said he once called a sleeping bag in Central Park home but lived these days on the E train.
After his meal, Mr. Hinton sipped coffee and opined.
He wondered which of the candidates really cared about the issues that affect him.
“We have folks living in boxes and living on trains,” said Mr. Hinton, a registered Democrat who was once a member of the Green Party. “None of the folks dealt with that issue.”
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