Lisa Galinis and Laura Sinai are sitting at a folding table with stacks of voter registration cards near the intersection of Turk and Hyde in San Francisco, registering people in the Tenderloin to vote.
In this precinct, fewer than half of residents turned out to vote in the June primaries. That drops to 32% in the next precinct over, compared nearly 60% in the city overall.
The Tenderloin is well known for its vast street population. San Francisco’s District 6 – the Tenderloin and SOMA – is where the majority of the city’s unsheltered homeless people stay, based on the most recent homeless count in 2015. It’s also where they can vote.
Galinis used to be homeless in San Francisco, and didn’t vote when she lived on the streets.
“It was never offered,” she says.
That’s the scenario that Tenderloin Votes is trying to change. The organization’s founder Jesse Johnson made the Tenderloin his home for the last two decades.
“If they could organize the homeless people in the city, they could have an army of 10,000. You know, that’s enough people to start a revolution. The same thing with voting,” Johnson says. “If we could organize homeless people to vote, we would be able to swing elections.”
Can it make a difference?
The last count in 2015 found 6,686 homeless people in the city. Is that really enough to make a difference in the elections? It depends which race you’re talking about.
For the presidential election, 6,686 votes may be a drop in the bucket. But when it comes to the close State Senate race between District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim and District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, there’s a greater chance for an impact. Kim beat Wiener by a mere 669 votes in June, and the two are facing off against each other in November. San Francisco voters will also be deciding on seven city ballot measures dealing with homelessness or affordable housing.
“Working people and poor people need to have a voice,” Johnson says. “People in the Tenderloin… they're immensely generous and immensely engaged with each other. But that doesn't translate into voting.”
Physical and mental barriers
One barrier is filling out the voter registration form, which asks for both a physical address and a mailing address.
Kat Callaway, one of Tenderloin Votes’ first members and a close friend of Jesse Johnson, has had to figure out how to vote despite being homeless. She’s lived on the streets of San Francisco for the last half a decade. She’s an election poll worker who regularly attends city government meetings and also helps people to register.
When I ask if she’s planning to vote in November, she says, laughing, “Oh hell yeah, I always vote.”
Callaway explains that many homeless people write in General Delivery as their mailing address on the voter form, which is where mail is held directly at the post office. They can also write in an intersection for their physical address.
A common misconception is that you can’t vote if you’re a convicted felon. But in California, you can vote unless you’re currently in jail or on parole for a felony.
Callaway says it’s not just logistical barriers that keep homeless people from voting.
“So many people, it’s not that they just don’t vote,” Callaway says. “It’s that they think the system has let them down, and they don’t want to support that system.”
Callaway thinks we’re missing something big when we miss out on all those aggregate voices that aren’t being heard through the decision-making process. For example, Callaway says people who are housed can’t understand what it’s like to be on the streets.
“As long as you got some place to go back to, I don’t think you really know what it’s like,” she says.
According to San Francisco’s list of registered voters, as of mid-September, 672 people listed an intersection and were subsequently assigned a precinct number by the Department of Elections. But the total number of homeless registered voters may be more than twice that much. Other studies have shown that the lower a person’s income, the less likely they are to vote. And this may have very real policy implications – especially in a state where so many decisions are made at the ballot. Right now, what California looks like from the voting booth is very different from who Californians actually are.
According to Mark Baldassare, President and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, the state’s electorate looks “predominantly white, predominantly homeowners, predominantly older, predominantly college educated and middle to upper income.” A recent study put out by his organization found that the higher your income, the more likely you are to vote.
How does that affect policy? States where many more high-income people turn out to vote than low-income people tend to have wider gaps between rich and poor.
“Likely voters lean towards identifying themselves with the haves,” Baldassare says. “The non-voters lean towards describing themselves actually in the opposite direction. Fifty-three percent of nonvoters describe themselves as being in the have-nots, compared to 31% in the haves.”
Additionally, non-voters are more likely to want the government to spend more money on social services like schools and healthcare. But their opinions don’t get counted in the elections. And those votes add up, as Kat Callaway notes.
“I don’t really believe that my vote counts, but I believe that my vote and your vote and this vote over here, even if we vote differently, as a voice, you know, it counts. And they have to listen to us,” she says. “As individuals we’re powerful, but as a community, we’re unstoppable. And they don’t let us see that.”
Meanwhile, the push to make those voices heard continues. Tenderloin Votes will be out in the neighborhood every week leading up to the final registration deadline, registering people to vote, one person at a time.