Sean Pinion voted for Donald Trump the same year he became homeless. He has always voted – and is determined that his housing status won’t keep him from doing so again this year.
“It gives me the choice for my voice to be heard, my opinion to be heard,” Pinion, 37, formerly of Detroit, who now is homeless in Gainesville, said recently about voting.
While voter turnout is surging across the country, the pandemic has limited resources for the 800-plus people without homes in Alachua County, including those that would help them to vote.
This challenge is not lost on public officials, said T.J. Pyche, director of communications and outreach for the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections office.
“It’s just one of those things where they face an uphill battle,” Pyche said. “We try to make a little bit of that more equitable.”
The county has provided information about voting to homeless shelters and advocacy groups since suspending its in-person outreach, he said. It has also hosted virtual events and socially distanced neighborhood walks to increase voter awareness, he said.
“We’re trying to make the best of the situation, while also being mindful of the safety of our volunteers, the people who work here and the voters we serve,” Pyche said.
People who are homeless deserve to feel as civically empowered as anyone else in electing their local, county, state and federal representatives and to influence legislation, said Lauri Schiffbauer, executive director of St. Francis House, a leading homeless shelter in Gainesville.
“It’s our right to be able to vote,” Schiffbauer said. “It’s our voice.”
Rupert Heard, 58, hails from Toledo, Ohio, but now lives at Grace Marketplace, another homeless shelter in Gainesville. Heard cited two reasons for voting: Generations of people fought for the right. If a person wants to improve their circumstances, they should cast a ballot.
“I feel like it’s your inalienable right,” he said.
But many others among the homeless are apathetic about politics, Heard said.
“They look at it like, ‘Well society has failed me, so why should I vote?’,” he said.
Lynn, 52, has been homeless since she was 16 and she does not want to vote because rarely if ever has anyone from the government helped her.
“I’ve been out here too long,” said Lynn, who asked to be referred to by her middle name to protect her safety because of a domestic violence situation.
Adding that most people don’t realize how dangerous it is to be homeless, especially as a woman, Lynn said she would consider voting if candidates prioritized fighting homelessness.
“Voting, I don’t think that, you know, it does any good or whatever to vote,” she said. “I don’t think it matters.”
Gary Denmark, 43, of Palatka, said he doesn’t know who he wants to be the next president. He wishes it was easier for him to access information about elections.
Denmark has been homeless on and off since his boiled peanuts business stopped raising enough money, and he lost his housing with a family friend two years ago. Without a bus pass or phone, he would normally use a nearby library to learn more about the candidates. But hours are limited because of the pandemic, so he mostly learns about them via conversations with his friends.
He said he doesn’t know where his polling place is but is willing to walk as far as it takes to vote.
“If you’re homeless that should not put you away from being voting,” Denmark said. “That should be a vote that counts.”
Anyone can vote at the supervisor of elections office or any of the five early voting locations until Saturday, Pyche said. A person can update their voter registration online, in-person at the office or over the phone, he said. And a voter’s address can be updated on election day, he said.
Homeless people can use the elections office as their voter address, which would place them in Precinct 27, Pyche said. That voting location is the Thelma A. Boltin Activity Center, about a 10 minute walk from the office.
Many people who are homeless vote by mail every year. They often use a relative’s address or a shelter’s location to register to vote and receive mail, said Daniel Whitehead, executive director of the D.C.-based nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless.
The number of people homeless in Alachua County increased 6% in 2019. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness reports there are about 28,300 homeless people in Florida. And the White House reported in 2019 more than half a million people are homeless on a single night.
Some areas have started imposing limits on the number of mail-in ballots that can go to one place, Whitehead said, capping the quantity of ballots that can go to homeless shelters. But that’s not the case in Alachua or Marion Counties, according to those supervisor of elections offices.
Neither county tracks the number of homeless voters. People without homes vote like everyone else, Whitehead said, estimating voter turnout for them mirrors turnout nationwide.
Marion County Supervisor of Elections Wesley Wilcox said voting rights for the homeless should be equal to everyone else, and inaccessibility to a mask or other restrictions will not prevent anyone from casting a ballot there.
“Your constitutional right to vote unencumbered, unfettered kind of outweighs any mask mandate,” Wilcox said.
Alachua County has already seen requests for mail-in ballots nearly double compared to the 2016 election, Pyche said. And people can always vote in-person, he added.
A person must bring a valid photo ID to vote, according to the Florida Division of Elections website. However, many people who are homeless struggle to obtain the documents required to get a valid ID, according to advocates. But a person without an ID card can still submit a provisional ballot, Pyche said. That ballot will be reviewed, and if the person is eligible to vote and at the correct polling place, the vote will count, he said.
Voting is important, Heard said. If a person dislikes their life, they should vote to help change it, he said while encouraging everyone, no matter their circumstances, to cast their ballot.
“Despite what the odds are, it’s your right,” he said.