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In Texas, Homeless Residents Face Obstacles To Voting

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Getting homeless people to vote is difficult, and many who try meet with active discrimination. There are reminders of that today as elections take place across the country. From Houston Public Media, Andrew Schneider brings us this story about what it takes to vote in Texas if you're homeless.

ANDREW SCHNEIDER, BYLINE: Joseph Benson rolls his wheelchair up to a desk in a cramped office at New Hope Housing. The South Houston apartment complex provides housing for low-income residents, many of whom are formerly homeless.

JOSEPH BENSON: You don't need a home address in order to vote.

SCHNEIDER: Benson works with an organization called Healthcare for the Homeless Houston. For the past 10 years, he's helped lead a program to encourage the city's homeless residents to register to vote. Before coming to work for the organization, Benson himself spent more than four years on the streets.

BENSON: We pushed it because we wanted to let the homeless community know that voting is a form of empowerment - because the individual that's homeless feels they have no control of the things that's happening to them.

SCHNEIDER: There are currently about 4,400 people in Houston who are homeless. In addition to running a weekly registration table, Benson's group helps such men and women find polling locations where they're less likely to face problems casting their ballots. Many election officials will turn people away if they can't show they have a fixed address.

JOSEPH KULHAVY: And that pervasive attitude influences the homeless themselves into believing that they are ineligible to register to vote.

SCHNEIDER: Joseph Kulhavy is an attorney and an expert on Texas election law. Texas voter ID law requires individuals to present a government-issued photo ID when voting. Such ID is generally beyond what a homeless person can afford. Kulhavy describes this as a statewide problem.

KULHAVY: There are something like 600,000 people who would be eligible to vote but for the fact that they lack adequate ID, and a substantial proportion of those people are homeless.

SCHNEIDER: Joseph Benson and his colleagues are doing the best they can to make a dent in those numbers here in Houston.

BENSON: In the past 10 years, we have been fortunate enough to get over 3,500 individuals registered.

SCHNEIDER: Benson says getting people to vote in local elections is particularly important. The mayor and city council after all, are the ones who decide how to address issues that affect the homeless most directly, like housing. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Schneider in Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.