Nearly 2,000 Oakland residents are homeless and another thousand live in shelters. This fall, volunteer groups from across the city worked on the first-ever drives to register as many of them as possible so they can vote.
“Voting is necessary because our voices are so seldom heard,” said Mavin Griffin, who has been unhoused for a decade and founded the Wood Street encampment for the homeless in West Oakland, where she now lives.
One voter registration drive recruited 25 to 30 volunteers and put them through voter registration training with the Registrar of Voters. The drive was the result of a partnership between Alameda County Voting Matters, an initiative by the Alameda County Public Health Department, and Healthcare for the Homeless, a program of the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency. The volunteers reached out to as many as 500 to 600 homeless people living in Oakland and registered 75 of them.
A separate initiative run by the Socialist Feminist Caucus, a part of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America, has also been reaching out to unhoused people across the city to encourage them to vote. The initiative has been supported by local organizations including East Oakland Collective, a community organization advocating equity and social justice, and Punks with Lunch, another local organization that offers free lunches to the homeless.
David Modersbach, grants manager at the Alameda County Healthcare for the Homeless, said that Alameda County residents without a home can provide the closest street intersection in place of a residence address. But they must also provide a mailing address to receive any communication and mail-in ballots, if they opt for them.
The residence address—in this case the street intersection—determines the precinct a voter belongs to and their assigned polling station.
The mailing address, which need not be the same as the specified residence address, can also be a post office box. Some community organizations let homeless people use their mailing address or post office box for the purpose of receiving mail-in ballots. Volunteers then bring the ballots to the people and mail them back on their behalf, too. Other homeless individuals use a former mailing address. Those living in shelters can usually receive mail there.
“We want everybody who is eligible to vote, to vote—regardless of their situation,” said Tim Dupuis, Registrar of Voters for Alameda County.
Volunteers from the Socialist Feminist Caucus said that a good number of the unhoused people they spoke with did not know that they were eligible to vote, and a significant number were already registered voters. Some were registered before they became homeless.
“It’s very difficult sometimes for houseless folks to know and understand that they have the right to vote and that they are able to vote,” said volunteer Marissa Seko, a member of the Socialist Feminist Caucus. Volunteers with the organization registered 30 homeless people in different encampments across the city, including one under the 12th Street Bridge near the Lake Merritt Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Station, the Wood Street encampment, and satellite encampments on Brush Street.
As part of the drive, volunteers also explained to homeless people that those with a criminal history can register to vote in most cases, but those on parole cannot.
The one-day drive by the Alameda County’s Healthcare for the Homeless covered eight locations across Oakland, including two Tuff Sheds sites, the Cityteam Oakland Shelter for men, and the East Oakland Community Project, which provides emergency and transitional housing to the homeless.
In some cases, people living in the same encampments have been assigned different polling stations.
On Sunday, volunteers from the Socialist Feminist Caucus went to the areas they covered during the registration drive to tell the voters they registered where to go on Election Day.