The homeless find a way to participate

In the nine years since she became homeless, Saundra Porch has not registered to vote. She felt disillusioned, she says, by a system that provided little help for her mother, who suffered from depression, or her brother, a Vietnam war veteran who felt scorned for the military service he was forced to perform.

She lived in Boston's inner city, where the lofty political talk of podiums seldom seemed to touch her life - or that of any of Boston's estimated 6,000 homeless.

But this year she has decided she will vote, because for the first time someone walked into her neighborhood and told her that her opinions matter. The effort was part of a national effort to bring more homeless voters to the polls this fall.

"People like us, we are easy to get lost in the cracks," says Ms. Porch. "They need to make a change and reach out for us."

At least 16 states and 37 cities reached out in a homeless-voter registration drive held last month.

In Boston the registration occurred just days before the Democratic National Convention, and seemed to command almost as much excitement from its participants - perhaps because the event was held in a tent festooned with balloons, and included a barbecue pit, ice cream, and a Dixieland jazz band.

The Boston event was cosponsored by the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity, and held on the lawn of the First Church of Christ, Scientist.

"I think there has been a belief in society that unless you have a street address you cannot vote," says Louise Bowler, a speaker at the event, and homeless for more than a decade. "Now that I have been voting I get such a sense of pride. Pride that I am an American and that it is even possible for me to get out and vote."

Trying to instill that sense of patriotism was exactly what four residents of New England's largest homeless shelter, the Pine Street Inn, had in mind when they started signing people up to vote last year. Fred Atkinson, a former computer programmer who has been homeless for over a decade, was drawn to the idea after he experienced the rewards of voting during his struggle back to mainstream society.

"I never had any idea it would get this big," says Mr. Atkinson. "It started as something that helped me, and so I wanted to spread it to others. But within weeks I had shelters all over Massachusetts calling me up and telling me they wanted to register their homeless to vote too."

Homeless advocates across the country have long emphasized the self-esteem and sense of belonging that participating in the democratic process can bring to homeless citizens, and some organizations have worked to forward the process.

But never before has there been as sustained and coordinated a national drive to register the homeless.

Of course, in Boston, as potential voters lined up to register, not all were necessarily thinking about the democratic process.

Some said they were there because their counselors felt it was important for them to come. Others admitted they were mostly interested in sampling the free food.

One mother, who asked to be called "Sue," says she was there for her children.

"To tell the truth, I don't care about voting so much," says Sue. "But they seem proud that I am voting. It makes them feel more legitimate."

Ms. Porch says she came because the women's home that she currently lives in sent all 21 of its residents to the event. "It was a surprise. But I was glad once I got here that I am finally doing this."

Many at the event explained that they had not realized that they could vote without a permanent address. However, volunteers encouraged participants to list a shelter, PO box, or even a relative's home.

"I think it's the belief that you need an address - your own address - that prevents most homeless people from registering," says Ms. Bowler. "It's the same belief that tells them that they are less than citizens. But having a home is not what makes you a citizen, or an American."

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