Colorado Makes Sure Homeless Are Not Voiceless

Voting rules in the U.S. differ from state to state, and many states have adopted more restrictive registration and voting policies since 2012. Fortunately, Colorado makes it easy for all residents to register—even the homeless ones.

By Matthew Van Deventer

Omar Khauldunn outside Denver’s St. Francis Center. Photo credit: Matthew Van DeventerCharlie Wilson has been using his address at St. Francis Center on Curtis Street for his voter registration information for three years. The busy day center serves between 700 and 900 men and women experiencing homelessness a day, and this is where Wilson’s ballot is mailed to him. 

Wilson became homeless about three years after his house was foreclosed on; he went through a divorce and then he lost his job six months later. For Wilson, voting is important because it puts power into the hands of the people. At the same time, he refers to the state of politics and says voting also gives him and others the right to complain later—maybe even more incentive.

“You had your chance to try to change it,” says Wilson about the importance of voting. “It’s going to be the way the politicians want it to be. They’ve swept homeless people under the rug and now there’s a big mound and it’s seeping out, that’s the problem.”

Wilson uses his phone to keep up with local and national news, always being sure to use three sources. As far as issues go, affordable housing is most important to Wilson, who has been told for the past two years he would be getting his own place and says there’s about a three to five year wait for housing—he pays for a bed at another shelter.

Recently nonprofits across the state banded together to hold the event “Homeless, Not Voiceless” in order to inform Coloradans that they can vote even if they don’t have a home. Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams spoke at the event, which was co-hosted by Mile High Behavioral Health Center and the Comitis Crisis Center, Metro Community Provider Network, Close to Home, Colfax Community Network, The Aurora Mental Health Center PATH Program, and the Colorado Secretary of State’s office (SOS). 

The event was intended to draw attention to the importance of registering all eligible Coloradans to vote—including those experiencing homelessness. It had the desired effect and more; some news outlets praised Williams for the initiative. However, the department’s communications director Lynn Bartels told the VOICE, “This isn’t anything new. We were just registering.” 

Colorado has a long history of helping the homeless to vote. Andrew Spink, business development director for St. Francis Center, can’t pin down exactly when in the 33 years the shelter has been in operation that it started registering the homeless to vote. However, he’s been working there 11 years and has known about many outreach efforts. A person like Charlie Wilson can use an address such as a homeless shelter where he receives mail to register. According to the SOS, St. Francis Center has 1,499 active voters, Denver Rescue Mission has 72, the Samaritan house has 71, and Warms the Night and the Comitis Crisis Center in Aurora have registered seven voters.

Encouraging the homeless to vote is nothing new in Denver. Denver Urban Matters (DENUM) has been pushing disenfranchised communities to vote since 2011. It is partnered with several nonprofits as well as the Colorado Participation Project, which was adopted by the Community Resources Center in 2015 to help nonprofits effectively advocate their missions. 

DENUM’s community relations director Carolyne Schultz says the program encourages people to be concerned with local issues and not just presidential candidates. “And there’s a lot going on, on the ballot this year,” continues Schultz.

The outreach program has three steps. First, DENUM’s front desk is staffed full-time, and they are responsible for engaging everyone that comes through the door as well as asking them if they are a registered voter. 

They then open up the conversation and ask why they are or aren’t voting. If a person seems open to voting or already is planning on voting, DENUM staff asks for a commitment to vote by filling out a card with some information like a phone number. With permission, DENUM calls the individual twice before voting day with a non-partisan, zero-agenda phone call reminding him to vote.

Schultz says DENUM has the highest success rate in registering voters among their partners. By the end of September, DENUM had 300 voting commitments. It is hoping for 1,000. The organization is also working on material outlining the issues up for vote.

As for the SOS press release and involvement in the “Homeless, not Voiceless” event, Schultz says, “I think this is more of an attempt to show goodwill in the midst of all the other things happening over the past year with the city, the state around homeless generally. But I think this is more of a public goodwill campaign instead of a change of policy.”

Omar Khauldunn says he’s been voting for quite awhile. Khauldunn was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) last year, a nervous system disease that attacks the muscles. It began affecting him so much he couldn’t work anymore and became homeless this past May. 

Khauldunn, an Army veteran, says he uses his address at Samaritan House and feels very strongly about voting: “In my opinion, it’s a seizure of power. It’s that one day that people actually can have the power to control the government... I really look at it as a powerful thing.”

He’s been following the presidential elections closely and wants someone in office who won’t get the country back into war. ■