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Does the Homeless Vote Matter in San Francisco?

Updated: Nov 05, 2016 14:29
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Guest Post by Lucy Kang

A version of this story was originally broadcast on KALW’s Crosscurrents.

Kat Callaway doesn’t waste words when I ask her if she’s planning to vote next week. Her answer? Hell yes.

Kat’s enthusiasm is unsurprising. She has been the picture of political engagement since arriving in San Francisco five years ago. She works the polls, volunteers with a local voter organization Tenderloin Votes, and attends Board of Supervisor and city meetings regularly, so often that they “they cringe when they see me coming.” Kat’s hard to miss, with a brilliantly red pixie cut and devilish grin.

Kat is also homeless, which puts her in one of the city’s invisible categories – the homeless voter. While the city will be voting on seven housing and homelessness measures on next month’s ballot, there’s a dearth of information about the group of San Franciscans that arguably has the most to lose or gain from them.

Kat is both a voter and one of the 6,686 homeless adults in San Francisco. But there’s no official count of the city’s homeless voters because the Department of Elections doesn’t keep that data. The homeless are a notoriously difficult group to track, for reasons you might imagine.

Local community activist Kat Callaway. (Photo by Lucy Kang)

In fact, the most recent figure is from 2015, when volunteers walked through the city’s 47 square miles and counted each person on the street. By my very rough estimate of the city’s voter registration file for the presidential elections, less than a quarter of the homeless were registered as of mid-September. Those numbers may be able to impact close elections, like the hotly contested State Senate race between District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim and District 8 Supervisor Scott Weiner. Kim beat Weiner in June by a mere 669 votes.

There’s a whole host of misconceptions homeless people face about voting, like whether they’re even allowed to vote. “A lot of homeless people don’t know,” says Kat. “I certainly didn’t know.”

First off, the homeless absolutely can vote. According to San Francisco’s Department of Elections, they can list the intersection they stay at most often as an address. Get past the registration, and there are still more barriers to go through, like residency and ID requirements, mental health needs, and other myriad logistics.

But that’s not stopping Kat, especially in this election season, when a record 200 million Americans have registered.

It’s widely documented that people with lower incomes are less likely to vote than their more affluent counterparts – in other words, what’s known as “class bias.” Research suggests that states with more class bias tend to have higher income inequality. In California, the people who turn out at the polls tend to describe themselves as the “haves,” while more non-voters identify as the “have-nots.” And voters as a whole have less support of government spending on things like housing and education.

Kat Callaway works on a poster for local organization Tenderloin Votes in the lead-up to the presidential election (Photo by Lucy Kang)

In San Francisco, as the rest of the country, voter turnout for the homeless will probably be lower than the average, so they may have less of a say in what happens with the city’s affordable housing and homelessness measures on the ballot. And the gap between what the rich and what the homeless want can be worlds apart.

“As long as you got someplace to go back to,” says Kat, “I don’t think you really know what it’s like.”

Take Proposition Q, bankrolled by billionaire and millionaire citizens, which would ban homeless encampments on sidewalks. Supporters argue,“it is not compassionate to allow human beings to live in tents on our streets.” If passed, Prop Q would be one of the dozens of “quality-of-life” law that covers how public spaces are used and prohibits things like panhandling on medians and sitting or lying on the sidewalk. These have cost the city $20.6 million so far, but only produced “limited results,” according to the city’s analyst.

“Oh hell yes, I’m very much against it,” says Kat. “They take away your home and give you one night in a shelter, and you’re fixed.”

In the end, how much the homeless vote matters isn’t just a matter of sheer numbers. While inequality inside the voting booth leads to more inequality outside, the converse is true too. One study found that inequality is lower where more poor people turn out to vote. So in a city like San Francisco where income inequality and homelessness are at a fever pitch, could homeless voters be one of the keys to greater equality?

“A lot the people out here are creative and brilliant and thoughtful and care about the world,” says Kat. “And I see the future coming from these people.”

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