From the Streets of New York City to the Ballot Box

Jason Smith and Sean Murray

Sean Murray and Jason Smith hold up their cardboard sign for passersby

By Margie Merritt

On many streets throughout the city you can find a homeless person holding a sign related to the presidential election, but many of these people don’t know they can take their opinion from the corner to the ballot box.  

“I didn’t know I could vote if I lived out here on the streets,” said Jason Smith, who frequents a corner in the Times Square area with his three friends.

Homeless people in New York haven’t always been allowed to register to vote. This came to an end in 1984 when a lawsuit brought by the coalition for the homeless banned local boards of election in New York from prohibiting homeless New Yorkers from registering.

Now the registration form has two different address boxes. One for an address where the person can receive mail, like a shelter or a church, and one for where they can commonly be found like a park bench or a corner they frequent.

In 2010, the Campaign Finance Board created a new voter assistance unit that is tasked with identifying under-registered segments of the community and then enabling them to register. Onida Coward-Mayers, director of the voter assistance unit, said they have a lot of events planned to really hone in on the importance of voting, especially with the homeless.

One of those events was the Unity Day of Action, where some of the black greek lettered organizations came out and went to nine different homeless shelters throughout the city to register people to vote. In one day they were able to successfully register 120 homeless people in the shelters they went to.

In a press release from the Department of Homeless Services, the city’s homeless count has now reached an all time high of 60,000 people. While the number of homeless in the city is getting larger the number of eligible registered voters is also.  The New York State board of elections reports as of April 2016 a little over 4 million people, out of the 8 million that reside in the city, are registered to vote.  With those numbers and new numbers released from the Department of Homeless Services, the homeless are becoming a larger demographic and they often get overlooked when it comes to elections.

Back over in the Times Square area Jason Smith and his friends continue to sit on their corner. One friend is holding a sign that says “Fuck Trump.” When asked if he was registered to vote, he proudly exclaimed that he was and that he would be going to vote come Election Day.

“I’m going to vote for Hillary,” said Sean Murray. “Hillary is just the lesser of the two evils.” While Smith said, ““If I could vote I honestly wouldn’t vote for either of them.”

For now the 120 newly registered voters that the volunteers were able to register will be deciding on whom they will vote for come November 8th.