The Case That Defended the Homeless Vote
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because of this case, people who are experiencing homelessness are allowed to cast a ballot.
A group of protesters clustered outside Los Angeles City Hall. The year was 1984, and the demonstrators included three Californians who were living in Santa Barbara’s Fig Tree Park.
At the time, the United States’ homeless population was exploding, in part spurred by cuts to social services and reduced federal spending on affordable housing. Government data from 1984 estimated that there were between 250,000 and 300,000 unhoused people across the country. Just three years later, those numbers had soared as high as 600,000.
But the LA protesters weren’t lobbying for policies that might allow them a safe place to sleep. They just wanted to vote, but their voter registration forms had been rejected by a county clerk because they had listed a public park as their residence.
The issue made its way up to the California Court of Appeals in 1985’s Collier v. Menzel, which ruled that people could register cross streets, corners, intersections or shelters as their voting address to receive mail. The court upheld that denying unhoused people’s right to vote would violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Which means that the estimated 151,000 Californians currently experiencing homelessness can vote in the presidential primary on March 3, aka Super Tuesday — where the Golden State has 415 pledged delegates up for grabs.
Today, American cities continue to ban overnight parking, sweep homeless encampments from public parks and pass laws that restrict public areas where people are allowed to sleep or sit — rules that criminalize homelessness and by extension criminalize being poor, advocates say. But the polls are one place that remains open to all. “Homelessness is historically perpetual, and the victims have a right to voice their input as to solutions,” says Kirk Ah-Tye, who represented amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the 1985 case. “Otherwise, the anomaly created is that the poorest of the poor may get into heaven but cannot get into a voting booth.”
California wasn’t the first state to take on the issue. A New York public interest firm litigated for homeless voting rights in New York City in a 1984 case, Pitts v. Black. Similar cases had also cropped up in 1984, in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. But the California opinion went further, stating that people experiencing homelessness should be encouraged to register and to vote to affect the political process — a decision that could be used as precedent nationally once published, says Ah-Tye. It also had high stakes for social services: “We were concerned that if counties could create burdensome residency requirements for constitutionally protected voting rights, that would open up the gates for ultra difficult residency requirements for other welfare programs,” explains Ah-Tye.
More than three decades later, many people remain unaware that a traditional address isn’t required to vote. Many also assume that those experiencing homelessness won’t take the time or effort to cast a ballot. “Just because you’re houseless doesn’t mean you’re not getting the news,” says Pete White, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles Community Network (LA CAN), a nonprofit community justice organization.
But obstacles to exercising that right persist. Documentation of turnout specifically among unhoused voters is fuzzy, but in previous election years, lower-income people voted at significantly lower rates than higher-income ones. Getting to a polling place can prove challenging for people living outside who have to weigh the possibilities of possessions being stolen or encampment sweeps. Then there’s the matter of feeling unwelcome at the voting booth. “On a daily basis, folks who present as houseless … are sort of shooed away [and] barred from entering public locations,” White says. On March 3, LA CAN’s office, which is located in Skid Row — a Los Angeles neighborhood that’s home to roughly 13 percent of those experiencing homelessness within city limits — will be a polling place, as it has been in some previous elections.
California has a history of influential statewide ballot measures. In 1978, Proposition 13 capped property taxes, while Proposition 64 legalized adult use of marijuana in 2016, among others. Local funds for housing initiatives aimed squarely at those experiencing homelessness can be decided via ballot measure. One such example is Proposition HHH, approved by Los Angeles voters in 2016, which was designed to develop supportive housing for homeless individuals and those at risk of homelessness. “For the lion’s share of social issues in this country that we’re facing, the conversations and solutions … are led by people who are full of privilege,” White says, “who really have no experience with the shortcomings of a system that is purportedly for all people.”
Because most presidential campaigns target homeowners, voter turnout usually tends to mirror the housed population, White notes. But for the same reason, lower-income communities can be the swing vote in close races, compared with affluent voters. And some argue that more immediate, existential effects on their well-being hang in the balance of election outcomes. Beyond those already unhoused, White points to what Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies estimates at 721,000 families in Los Angeles County who are severely rent-burdened and thus at risk of homelessness. Their votes could prove pivotal — if campaigns reach them.
“There is truly a sleeping giant in this country,” White says.