How to vote when you’re homeless

Most Ontarians know how to navigate election day — but for people experiencing homelessness, casting a ballot isn’t so simple
By Michal Stein - Published on June 5, 2018
a sign on a wall that says Vote June 7
Research indicates that most people experiencing homelessness don’t know that they can vote. (Stephen C. Host/CP)

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When Pauline Bryant asked a room of about a dozen new mothers at the Stop’s Healthy Beginnings program if any of them had ever voted before, no one raised a hand.

Bryant has been a community organizer since 2011, when she completed the Community Action Training at the Stop, a food bank and community space. The Stop hired her in April to organize a series of voter-education events — what it calls “democracy talks” — for its drop-in programs, such as the Healthy Beginnings, which provides education and support for pregnant women and new mothers. Bryant has brought in representatives from organizations like 15 and Fairness, ACORN, Commitment to Community, and Put Food in the Budget to talk about issues in the provincial election that are relevant to people experiencing poverty and homelessness. 

With the Ontario election now days away, most people have received their voting cards or at least know what they’ll need to bring to the polling station in order to vote. But for people experiencing homelessness, the process isn’t so simple.

Many don’t have a permanent address or identification. Elections Ontario has provisions in place to accommodate this, but Anna Kopec, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto who wrote her master’s thesis on voting in Toronto’s homeless population, says that the biggest barrier isn’t valid paperwork — it’s the fact that most people experiencing homelessness don’t know that they can vote.

According to Elections Ontario, if an elector does not have a permanent residence, they can use whatever service provider — drop-in centre, food bank, or shelter — they have used most in the past five weeks as their address. Elections Ontario then works with the service providers to provide a Certificate of Identity and Residence in order to help the elector meet the voting requirements. Representatives from Elections Ontario have taken part in the Stop’s democracy talks.

But, as Kopec notes, there is often a discrepancy between official policy and what election officials and service providers actually know. “During the last federal election, one of my participants was told to wait because the polling clerk didn’t know the process of voting for people without an address,” she says.

As for why it matters that people experiencing homelessness vote, Kopec says that “it comes down to the fact that we are a democracy, and we claim to be one of the best in the world.”

“So many social-policy issues affect our community members,” says Kate Fane, the Stop’s communications officer. “We understand that the people who are experiencing these issues are the ones who are best equipped to advocate for themselves and really push a change.” Elections, Fane says, are a natural way for the organization to engage community members in the political process, but for many people who need to prioritize basic survival, political engagement is an afterthought.

Bryant has spent the last five weeks talking to people experiencing homelessness and poverty about why they should vote. Many receive benefits from the Ontario Disability Support Program or Ontario Works. Bryant herself receives Ontario Works benefits, so she understands firsthand the frustrations and limitations that come with relying on a fixed income. “When somebody is hungry and on such a low income or they’re living on the streets, they’re worried about where their next meal is coming from, not who’s in charge,” she says.

For Rosalee Edwards, a volunteer community advocate with the Stop, voting isn’t always worth it. She has voted before, but she says she gets disillusioned with politicians who don’t follow through on their promises: “Why vote for this person, and you said you were going to do the work, and you get in, and there’s no work done?” She went to talk to her Liberal candidate, Christine Martin, last week and asked about affordable and long-term housing and dental coverage for people with low income, but she wasn’t impressed with the responses she received.

When it comes to better involving people experiencing homelessness in the political process, Kopec says that more coordination between election officials and service providers is essential. “I think politicians need to engage the population in more ways — more than just holding park barbecues. It seems like it’s for the whole community, but when individuals experiencing homelessness come, they don’t feel welcome,” she says. “If politicians can go to old folks’ homes and seniors’ homes, why can’t they go to shelters or drop-in centres?”

While Bryant acknowledges the barriers that people face when it comes to voting, she sees doing so as an act of solidarity. “You have to contribute. Everybody has to contribute. You can’t get something from nothing. You have to do something to get something,” she says. 

Michal Stein is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.

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