(Robbie Veldwijk photography)
Street Spirit spoke to unsheltered people about who they plan to vote for in the Presidential election.

Street Spirit spoke to 107 unsheltered and marginally housed people about who they are planning to vote for in the November 3 presidential election. The survey was conducted at homeless encampments in West and South Berkeley, North Oakland, West Oakland, and East Oakland between October 18 and October 25.  The majority of respondents were Black. 

More than half of those interviewed—58 people in total—reported that they will not vote or are not eligible to vote in the upcoming election. For those who said they will cast their ballots, former Vice President Joe Biden received four times more endorsements than President Donald Trump—24 people supported Biden and six said they were planning on voting to re-elect the current president.

Graph based on data gathered in a Street Spirit survey. (Alastair Boone)

Some Biden voters said they made their choice because of his years serving as Vice President to President Barack Obama. Others said they would vote for him based on their support for Kamala Harris. In large part, Biden voters expressed a strong desire to unseat President Trump. “He is just so stupid. That’s a WRAP!” one respondent said.

The six Trump voters fell into two categories. Three said they support the president because of the way he is addressing behind the scenes corruption, citing conspiracy theories made popular by the right-wing fringe Qanon movement. The other three want to re-elect President Trump because they believe he is responsible for the unemployment insurance and stimulus money they have been collecting since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. “We got bums driving Benzes!” one man said.

The majority of survey respondents said they don’t plan on voting in this fall’s election. 18 people reported that they are unable to vote, either because they are on parole for a felony—a restriction that may be overturned this fall if Prop 17 is passed—or because they are undocumented. More than one third of respondents—40 people—said they are simply choosing not to vote. 

Unsheltered people obtained the right to vote in the 1980s, when two court cases maintained that a traditional address cannot be required in order to register to vote. In 1984, Pitts v. Black ruled that states should interpret the term “residence” to include non-traditional dwellings where people intend to live for indefinite periods of time. And in 1987, Fischer v. Stout ruled that homeless people may register to vote using a shelter, park, or street corner as their residence. 

However, it has long been the case that low-income people vote at a lower rate than higher income people. A Columbia University report published in August 2020 dives into these statistics by examining exit data from the 2016 presidential election. In 2016, 29 million voters were poor or low-income, but an additional 34 million poor or low-income people did not vote despite being eligible. Those 34 million people made up 15 percent of the total eligible voting public.

The reasons why low-income people tend not to vote are manifold. Working several jobs, illness, transportation or registration difficulties, and a sense that the candidates do not care about them have all ranked among the reasons why low-income people stay home on election day. This is what Street Spirit found when speaking to unsheltered voters as well. “They won’t put anything in my pocket,” one non-voter said. 

However, the Columba University report suggests that poor people could have a lot of power in the upcoming election, especially now that the coronavirus pandemic is poised to widen the gap of income inequality even further.

“If low-income voters participated at similar rates as higher income voters, and voted against the winning party, there are 15 states where new low-income voters could flip the results from the 2016 presidential elections. This includes key battleground states and states in the south,” an article by the Poor People’s Campaign states.

Below, Street Spirit has included testimonies from a handful of people who are sitting out this election.

Why aren’t you voting?

“Ha! That is so far outside of my scope of interest right now. I’m just trying to get my life together. We live in tents in Downtown Oakland, California. Out here, we’re just trying to negotiate the day. Not the next four years.”

“Because I vote absentee, but I don’t have an address to vote in.”

“Because they do like they wanna do.”

“I don’t have a TV because I’m homeless. I don’t really follow politics. I don’t want to just go with who everyone tellin me to vote for. Maybe when I get a TV and can get informed I’ll vote.”

“Because they all do the same to a certain level.”

“I don’t trust em.”

“Trump’s already been impeached and he’s still in office. So what is the point of voting?”

“They’re not helping my people at all.”

Author’s note: The encampment communities visited for this survey were located in the following areas: 8th and Harrison Streets (the Berkeley Friends on Wheels vehicle encampment); The Seabreze and University Avenue overpass encampments in West Berkeley; People’s Park; The Here/There encampment in South Berkeley; Shattuck Avenue; The encampment at the tennis courts at Athol Plaza in Oakland; The Wood Street encampment in West Oakland; the 37 MLK encampment in West Oakland; The Northgate encampment along Martin Luther King Jr. Way; The Union Point encampment in East Oakland; And the encampment on E. 12th Street between 18th and 14th Avenues in East Oakland.

Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.