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Without a home, but not without a vote
Larger view
Joy Sorensen Navarre (left) and Bev Blomgren are registering voters along Concord Ave. in St. Paul. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Talk to any political analyst and they'll tell you the upcoming presidential election is all about voter turnout. If you get more people to the polls, you win the election. This year political parties, candidates and outside interest groups are mounting tremendous voter registration drives across the country. In Minnesota, advocates for the poor and homeless are encouraging an often overlooked population to vote this year.

St. Paul, Minn. — It's hard to go door knocking where there are no doors. It's also hard to encourage people to register to vote when they don't know where they're going to sleep at night. And yet that's what several homeless shelters are doing every night in Minneapolis.

"Welcome to the Monday lottery. You can win a bed here on Monday night for beds at St. Stevens, Simpson and Our Saviourism," Simpson Housing shelter advocate Liza Viktora yells to the audience.

Larger view
Image Getting the homeless to vote

It's lottery night at the Simpson Housing Shelter in Minneapolis. About 75 homeless men are here every Monday with the hopes of winning a bed for a month at one of the city's three private shelters. Those who don't get a bed either sleep outside or go to the Secure Waiting Space, known as the "tramp camp" in the homeless community.

"We have 14 beds here at Simpson to give away, four beds at Our Saviours and 12 beds at Stevens" Viktora said.

The group of men sit on a dozen couches as Simpson Shelter advocate Liza Viktora shouts out the lucky numbers. The men are dressed in layers. Winter coats hang over sweatshirts which hang over tattered long-sleeve shirts. Before and after lottery, the men watch TV and socialize.

Lottery night is a busy night for Joshua Lang. He's been walking around the shelter with voter registration cards in hand.

Shelter advocates have been encouraging homeless people to register to vote this year. Lang says they expect to register between 1,000 and 2,000 voters.

"Getting people registered was the first thing we wanted to do," Lang said. "Polls have shown that once someone's registered, they are more likely to vote."

Lang says they're registering voters with the hope that it will influence politicians to help poor people. He says the homeless and low income are often overlooked when politicians make decisions about public funding. Lang believes a large voter turnout could change that. "When politicians look at different areas they see how many are registered," Lang said. "And they would see how many different people are registered in places like Secure Waiting Area, which is a big homeless shelter, St. Stevens Shelter, Our Saviours Housing. They would see that there are people in these communities that are registering to vote."

The homeless can register with their shelter address. They can also use the last four digits of their Social Security number if they don't have a Minnesota ID card. Shelter advocates say they plan to run several vans from the shelters to the polling places on election day.

Some of the homeless interviewed say they're not sure who they'll vote for, if they vote at all.

Others are just as divided as the rest of Minnesota. One person said he needs to help the president keep his job. Tyrone, who didn't want his last name used, says he's going to vote for John Kerry.

"It's probably not good news for the Rpublicans if homeless and low-income voters are brought into the electorate but my guess is that it might not be as bad news for the Republicans as the Democrats might think."
- Kay Schlozman, Boston College Political Professor

"I think about the people over there in Iraq," Tyrone said. "I feel that there are a lot of reasons that they're over there that I don't think should be over there. I feel like there are more people getting killed over there than over here so I feel they should bring them home."

While homeless advocates are registering voters in the shelters, others are active in low income neighborhoods.

In St. Paul, volunteers with the West Side Citizens Organization, or WSCO, get together every Tuesday night.

On this evening, 12 volunteers are going house to house on Concord Avenue in West St. Paul. Duplexes, ranch homes and split level homes dominate the area. Here and there, there are yard signs for Bush and Kerry.

But volunteer Joy Sorensen Navarre says the neighborhood isn't involved enough in politics. She says WSCO came together because of the low voter turnout in last year's City Council race.

"I really believe in people knowing each other and helping each other," Sorensen Navarre Said. "I found out my neighborhood doesn't vote and doesn't turn out for voting and of course downtown they don't pay attention to us."

But registering these voters can be hard work. Many people aren't home. Some don't want to vote.

There can also be other problems. Volunteers have run into several immigrants and ex-felons in the neighborhood. Immigrants who aren't U.S. citizens can be deported if they register. Ex-felons can't vote unless they have their rights restored.

WSCO's efforts are nonpartisan but some say they're volunteering with the hopes of helping John Kerry win Minnesota. Jim Weil says he's going door to door in low income neighborhoods because these voters are more likely to vote Democratic.

"I feel it could be a very close election," Weil said. "So it's especially important and I have the faith that if we register a lot of people that they'll vote for a change but since this is a nonpartisan drive we don't tell them anything except to get them to register to vote.

Several political analysts agree with Weil's assessment. Kay Schlozman studies voting patterns at Boston College. She says homeless and low income people generally vote for Democrats.

"It's probably not good news for the republicans if homeless and low income voters are brought into the electorate," Schlozman said. "But my guess is that it might not be as bad news for the Republicans as the Democrats might think." Schlozman says registering to vote and actually voting are two different things. She says both parties and outside interest groups have been active in mobilizing their voter base this year and their efforts may cancel each other out. As for the efforts to register homeless and low income people, Schlozman says the numbers are probably too small to make a difference. But she also says it's possible that public opinion polls may overlook the number of newly registered voters who actually show up to vote on election day.

"We can't rely on polls entirely, Schlozman said. "People make up their own minds. They make up their minds at the last minute. People sometimes tell different things to pollsters than they intend to do." Both political parties and outside groups say they'll focus now on getting those who have registered to the polls on election day.

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