This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media.
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.
“You don’t need a home address in order to vote,” Benson says.
Benson works with an organization called Healthcare for the Homeless Houston. For the past ten years, he’s helped lead a program to encourage the city’s homeless residents to register to vote.
“We pushed it because we wanted to let the homeless community know that voting is a form of empowerment, because individuals that’s homeless feel that they have no control of the things that’s happening to them,” he says.
Each Monday, Benson’s group runs a registration table at SEARCH Homeless Services in Midtown. The group also helps find polling locations where homeless voters are less likely to face problems casting their ballots.
“Over in Palm Center, where they have a voting office, they accept the homeless community easier than they do at some of the other places,” he says.
Many registrars will turn people away if they can’t show they have a fixed address.
“More than once, I’ve encountered election officials who themselves believe that not having a street address is itself a legal bar to registering to vote,” says Joseph Kulhavy, an attorney who worked for eight years in the Elections Division of the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.
“And that pervasive attitude influences the homeless themselves into believing that they are ineligible to register to vote,” Kulhavy says.
Kulhavy, who now writes the Texas Election Law Blog, says Texas’ voter ID law has made it tougher still for such residents to participate.
“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,” he says.
Joseph Benson and his colleagues are doing the best they can to make a dent in those numbers here in Houston.
“In the past ten years, we have been fortunate enough to get over 3,500 individuals registered [to vote],” 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.