Vincent Corcoran knows that ward clerks are surprised when they see an unkempt homeless man with ragged clothes making his way to the voting booth. But that doesn't bother him. He believes that voting is his right, and has continued to exercise it during his 15 years on and off the streets.
"Because I'm homeless, that doesn't mean I'm not a human being, I'm not a person," he says. "God gave us the right just like anybody else."
In a presidential year, Mr. Corcoran and other homeless people could make a small but noteworthy impact in some states - remember Florida was decided by just over 500 votes in 2000 - come November. If anything, it's an opportunity to showcase what some say are growing concerns surrounding the 3.5 million people who cycle into homelessness each year and help them reintegrate back into society.
"I think what's important is that it's the right time.... We continue to see dramatic increases in homelessness both in individuals and also in families, especially with young children. It's time that their voices are heard," says Arnold Cohen, president and CEO of the Partnership for the Homeless, the New York-based organization that runs Peter's Place.
Individuals and advocacy groups from Washington to Ohio to California are stepping up efforts to bring the needs of the low-income and homeless citizens out of the shadows and into the public eye. Registration tables are being set up in shelters, food pantries, and on the streets. With 800,000 without a home on any given night, organizers are hoping to register tens of thousands.
Politicians are taking note. Before Super Tuesday, John Edwards's New York State campaign director visited Peter's Place, the Manhattan drop-in center where Corcoran now resides. Hours later, John Kerry's sister paid a visit.
But beyond political posturing, advocates say the simple act of registering and voting brings a sense of dignity to those living on the streets.
"I came across two old timers - one was 60, the other was 80," says Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, of his first attempt to register voters in 1980. "The younger man had not voted since he had voted for John F. Kennedy, and the old-old-timer hadn't voted since he had voted for Franklin Roosevelt. Those folks were so excited that someone wanted them to get involved in the system."
The experience convinced Mr. Stoops that registering large numbers of homeless voters was not only possible, but it could also have a tangible political impact. In 1992, he started the "You Don't Need a Home to Vote" campaign, and has since registered tens of thousands of homeless voters using shelters, post-office boxes, and friends or families' residences as their permanent address. This year the coalition is working to register voters in six target cities including Nashville, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Cleveland, Ohio. It aims to reach out to homeless in all 50 states during National Homeless Voter Registration Week in late September.
The Partnership for the Homeless hopes to register 5,000 voters in New York by November, and the Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness plans to register 20,000.
But homeless voting has its opponents. Concerns about the process range from voter fraud to giving undue influence to transient residents of a community. Incidents of alleged fraud involving homeless people were reported in a 1983 Chicago mayoral election and a New York school board election in 1993.
Voter administration officials in major cities, however, show little concern. Claims of fraud related to homeless people in Chicago were never proven, and voters today are comprehensively canvassed before elections to eliminate obsolete registrations from the rolls.
"I haven't heard a vote-buying complaint in years. It just doesn't happen, because the penalties are so strong and the elections are so well monitored," says Tom Leach, spokesman for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.
While advocates hope a voice at ballot box can help get quality healthcare and education for those who need it, the main issue is getting the homeless off the streets permanently. One key topic this year is funding for Section 8 housing assistance programs in President Bush's proposed budget for 2005. While new money going into these housing subsidies has increased since 2003, unused funds from previous years cushioned HUD's budgets in 2003 and 2004. As a result, even with an increase in funding, less money expected to be available after this year.
Tom Weiss is determined that other homeless people understand the issue and vote, because it could make the difference for them between a roof over their heads or a night in a shelter. Also homeless, Mr. Weiss has registered many of his fellow residents at Peter's Place and was instrumental in getting Senator Edwards's representative to come to the center before Super Tuesday. "The higher the rate of registration, the more political impact you are likely to have," says Weiss.
But for many homeless people, like Corcoran, voting is also a way to reintegrate them into society in spite of their alienating circumstances. "If you don't vote, then when the voting's over, then you say how'd this guy get in here? How'd this woman get in here?" asks Corcoran. "If you don't want them in there, go to the polls."