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Despite Their Situation, Some NC Homeless Residents Voted So Their Voices Could Be Heard

roof above.jpg
Roof Above

This article is made possible through a partnership between WFAE and Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. This article is available for reprint under the terms of our republishing policy.

Of the 366 days in 2020, one stands out for 59-year-old Robert Jones.

“I didn't even notice I was crying," Jones said. "You know, it just felt good. It just felt good to be back.”

Jones was talking about exercising his right to vote.

While most people’s voter registration cards include the street address of the voter, Jones’ registration is a little different. That’s because Jones has been homeless for roughly five years.

“Just because you are in transition does not mean that you do not have a say in what's happening,” said Regan Aduddell of the League of Women Voters of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

In the months before the general election, Addudel helped advocates with a voter registration drive for people experiencing homelessness.

For the homeless who were first-time voters, registering to vote is the same as it is for all residents: Complete a voter registration application and return it to the county board of elections.

“If they do not have a permanent residence, they can specify on the voter registration application where they usually sleep,” said Noah Grant, a spokesperson for the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

Mecklenburg County Board of Elections Director Michael Dickerson points out that “many individuals who are homeless double up living accommodations with friends or family, live in a hotel, or live out of a shelter. In all cases, these addresses are valid residential addresses.”

Dickerson says residents who sleep on the streets can register by filling out the section of the voter registration form that has a map and write the streets of the closest intersection where they usually sleep.

Voter registration map that homeless residents use to show the closest intersection where they sleep.
Mecklenburg County Board of Elections

“We then assign the voter an address based on the information provided,” Dickerson said. “We also need a valid mailing address for the individual in order to send the required mailings after registration.”

Dickerson says residents who live on the street can list the address of a relative or a caseworker as their mailing address. Shelters, like Roof Above, also allow clients to receive mail at their location.

How many homeless people vote is difficult to determine. The State Board of Elections doesn’t track the demographic, but the number of homeless people who can vote is significant.

A survey conducted between June 2019 and July 2020 by Mecklenburg County showed 3,165 residents enrolled in emergency shelter, transitional housing and street outreach.

County records show the number includes 265 families and 2,224 single individuals. This includes 149 young people between the ages of 18 to 24.

“These numbers do not include homeless households who have been paying to stay week-to-week in hotels and motels and households who are staying in doubled-up situations with friends and family,” said Lawrence Corley, a county spokesperson.

Pamela Terry, who works at Roof Above — a recent merger of Urban Ministry Center and the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte — started a voter registration drive at six of their facilities in Charlotte where homeless residents get assistance.

Terry said she partnered with organizations like the League of Women Voters that conduct voter education campaigns. She set up a table where residents could check their voter registration status.

“I wanted them to get the opportunity to exercise their right to vote," Terry said. "And I also wanted it to be a catalyst for their participation in future elections — to give them the sense that, you know, your vote does matter. You can effect change.”

She said some homeless residents were already registered to vote.

Terry estimates they registered nearly 100 people. In addition to setting up a table inside facilities, they also walked around what’s known as "Tent City" where some homeless residents live and sleep outdoors.

“That is where we were met with the largest amount of reluctance," Terry said. "That is the group of individuals where the largest response was, 'My vote doesn't matter. I don't trust the government. I don't trust the election process.’“

Aduddell, from the League of Women Voters, says some of the people experiencing homelessness had been paying attention to issues driving the election and the political climate.

“They are very aware of how COVID is affecting people and how badly that may have affected them or their family and friends," she said. "And so you saw a lot of people like, 'No, I'm gonna get out there and vote. I want a vote.'”

Neither the League of Women Voters nor Roof Above tracked how many of the homeless residents actually voted.

Terry says she arranged transportation to the polls for 15 people who requested a ride.

For Aduddell, the outreach itself was rewarding.

“I actually really enjoy doing it. And you felt like you were making sure that people who are currently not in the best situation or in transition knew that their voice did count,” Aduddell said. "They do have a say and their voice counts every bit as much as anybody else's voice.”

It took years for Jones to find his voice again.

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Robert Jones
Robert Jones

When his 17-year relationship with his wife ended in 2015, Jones’ life in the Washington D.C/Virginia/Maryland region spiraled. The divorce, he says, exposed personal issues he hadn’t confronted. After years of heavy drinking, his handyman business suffered. Once in the spotlight for his community advocacy work with a fatherhood program, Jones was a shell of himself. He tried to get sober on his own but the hole he was in was too deep.

The false sanctuary of the bottle finally landed him on the streets of Maryland.

“I was sleeping on the side of the Shell station. And then at some other houses of alcoholics, back and forth, couch-surfing,” he said. “I would go along the Shell station and wash cars and stuff to make money to buy drinks, to buy alcohol. Some people from the church would come over every day.

"Oh my God, I used to think they were so annoying. But this pastor, Rev. Cruz, would come with this outreach team, and they would just talk and talk and check on me every day with how you're doing. And they said, 'Whenever you're ready, let us know, we'll help you.' They brought me clothes, fed me up for a couple of days.”

Jones’ daughter lives in Charlotte with her family.

He says he got on a bus to Charlotte in December 2019 and checked into a detox facility. On Christmas Day, the Salvation Army gave him a bed. For six months, Jones received therapy, but not enough.

“I knew that unless I got the mental health and the counseling that I needed, I would not succeed or at least not in a meaningful way that I could deal with these issues and be done with it permanently,” Jones said.

Jones heard about SABER — Substance Abuse Education and Recovery program — that could help him deal with the shame of the sexual assault he endured in his childhood and the drinking that followed.

In September, a month into his intense therapy, a voter registration drive was underway at SABER. It caught Jones’ attention. The community advocacy work that once helped define him — but was a casualty of the alcoholism — awakened.

“I registered,” Jones said. “And then I told everybody else about it. Then she told me she also helped with IDs and stuff and voter registration. And so that became my give-back and my way of showing gratitude to this community and to the God of my understanding.”

Jones said he took it upon himself to constantly remind residents to get out and vote. The registration drive, he stressed, didn’t tell people who to vote for.

“They encourage people to vote as you will. Vote whatever your conscience is. Just vote,” Jones said.

As a Black man who life had brought to his knees, he says he had many reasons to vote.

“I just think as an African American male, especially, so many lives have been lost to gain the right to vote. And also, there's so much policy that's created based on demographics, voting blocs,” Jones said. "I understand the importance of doing that so that my community, in particular, can get the kind of funding they need for homeless resources, mental health resources.”

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