Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Homeless People Vote Too

Well, election season is in full swing now. And though many people may be unaware, homeless people vote too, having won that right due to a myriad of court cases. A federal judge in Ohio has even ruled that a homeless person may list a park bench as their address when registering to vote. The National Coalition for the Homeless has its own bi-annual election campaign -- a campaign to get the homeless who have the right to vote to do so .

But getting the homeless to vote isn't easy and keeping them engaged in the political process after the candidate of their choice has won the election and then failed to deliver on his or her promises is even harder, as this only adds to the feelings of disenfranchisement that many homeless already feel. Some of the homeless laid aside their feelings of doubt and despair in the fall of 2008 and decided to cast their ballots, many of them voting for Barack Obama who ran on a platform of "hope" and "change". They seemed to be following the advice of Malcom X who said, "A ballot is like a bullet. You don't throw your ballot until you see a target. And if that target is not within reach, keep your ballot in your pocket." They saw their target within reach in the person of Barack Obama -- or so they thought.

Here in DC where we only have two levels of government (due to not being located in a state), the homeless community expressed the same sort of excitement about then-Councilman Adrian Fenty in 2006 that the nation expressed about Obama in 2008. Adrian Fenty had been the Ward 4 councilman and was also the chairperson for DC Government's Committee on Human Services. It was his job to care for the underprivileged people of the District and he did his job well. He was accessible to the poor community when they had any complaints about services, even holding town hall meetings at shelters. As a matter of fact, Adrian Fenty's transition team hosted a meeting during which they heard the concerns of the homeless community. Much to the surprise of the organizers, more than eighty homeless people showed up.

Though not an organizer, I was tapped in the spur of the moment as one of the small group facilitators whose job it was to write down people's concerns. The transition team had not recruited enough facilitators for the large group that showed up. With over a dozen people in my group (the largest of all groups) and all of the positive energy that they had, I had considerable difficulty keeping up and writing down all of the concerns and ideas that were being mentioned.

This year Fenty is being challenged by Vincent Gray who was the director of Human Services in the early 1990's under former mayor sharon Pratt Kelly . Some people, including Fenty, claim that Gray didn't serve the poor community well while operating in that capacity. Others understand that he had limited power as the director of DHS and still want to see if he can do better by DC's needy upon becoming mayor.

But no matter who you side with, it seems that the city is mandating that its chief executive be someone who pays attention to the poor. After all, both Gray and Fenty have worked in human services, though in different capacities. Both candidates seem to be well-aware of this mandate, which would explain why they have had such heated debates about their respective human services records.

That might also explain why the Gray campaign reached out to the homeless community and arranged a visit by the council chairman to Franklin Park so he could shake hands and bump fists with a few homeless people on Saturday, August 28th as well as answer a few questions. The visit only lasted about 10 minutes, as the chairman had 11 engagements that day including a visit to Al sharpton's "Reclaiming the Dream" rally. Though several homeless people were disturbed by the brevity of his visit, they will get another chance to hear from their future mayor on September 11th, during the 40th anniversary celebration of CCNV (the organization in whose name a shelter was opened in 1988).

But in spite of the hype around these two candidates, the fact remains that the homeless were let down by the incumbent after having had high hopes for him and many of them don't want to place any faith in yet another candidate only to get more of the same. They've also testified at council hearings, only to have their words ignored. They go down to City Hall year after year to protest budget cuts to social services, only to have to do it again the following year. Many of them are tired of trying and don't want to be bothered with politics anymore.

I often remind people that, when you give up and stop making demands on your politicians, you're doing exactly what they want you to do. When you stop confronting them, you are giving them full run of the house and enabling them to do what they darn well please -- not what their constituents want. Your responsibility as a citizen doesn't end with your vote. You must remain involved in the politic process year-round.

While I personally don't have any faith in government, I realize that we are locked into this dynamic whereby we must apply to government for services that individuals can't provide for themselves. And in spite of their past failures and atrocities, we have nowhere else to turn. This would explain why homeless advocates go through their budget routine year after year. But until we come up with something better, we'll just have to work with what we've got. And that means voting (even if it is for the lesser of two evils) and visiting the offices of our public officials on a regular basis. I hope that you'll get out and vote this fall. If you don't, then you'll forfeit your right to complain about whoever you end up with.

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1 Comments:

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