Hope Faith Homeless Assistance Campus in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, is a daily drop-in center for people experiencing homelessness, a place where they can get meals, take showers, get supplies, and healthcare.
This election year, they're providing another critical service that the homeless don't have: an address.
Social worker LaWanda Swoopes is in charge of several essential services at Hope Faith and the one she's particularly proud of are the 450 mailboxes.
"I didn’t realize how many of our guests are actually already registered (to vote)," Swoopes said. "Because you know they had lives before this. They’ve been active in voting before this."
Advocates for the homeless say the pandemic is to blame for the growing number of people on the streets because of unemployment and evictions. The lack of an address, along with changes in statewide Voter ID laws and confusion around mail-in ballots, have made it particularly hard for the homeless to vote this year.
“It was always hard for homeless people," said Donald Whitehead, executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless. "We think it’s gotten harder.”
An official homeless count has not been done across the Kansas City area since the pandemic. That normally happens in January. But anecdotal accounts from regional agencies say there are a lot more new people needing services, as they're living on the streets or out of their cars.
There are an estimated 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness across the U.S., Whitehead said. And economists are predicting the pandemic could cause a 45% increase. In an election year, that’s an increase that worries Whitehead.
“So many people have given blood sweat and tears and even their lives in order for people to have the right to vote,” he said.
Whitehead has experienced homelessness himself. He recognizes that being able to exercise the right to vote is extremely challenging when you are worrying constantly about where you’re going to get a meal or sleep at night.
That’s why 20 years ago the coalition launched the campaign "You Don’t Need A Home To Vote."
Kansas City Homeless Advocates Gearing Up For Election And Winter
Swoopes requires her guests to fill out a contract to gain access to a mailbox. Basically they agree to liability issues, agree to the terms around subscriptions and junk mail, and commit to renewing or cancelling every 3 months.
It's important for people to have a secure, steady place where they can receive vital documents, medication, personal mail and voting information, Swoopes said.
Swoopes is also a notary, and she's been busy gearing up to get more people registered before the October 7th deadline. Through the next month, she plans to help people vote by mail, or locate where their polling locations are on election day.
Hope Faith also has helped 60 people get photo I.D.’s this year, another essential item needed in Missouri to be able to vote.
Back In March, when the statewide stay-at-home ordinance was first announced, Hope Faith moved all of their facilities outdoors within a 24-hour period, said Alfredo Palacol, Hope Faith's director of human services. They now occupy the street in front of their building under three long tents.
“We are basically gearing up for whatever winter will throw at us — and to be as safe as possible with COVID-19 still in the community,” Palacol said.
And if the past 6 months are any indication, Palacol said they are expecting to help a lot more new people the cold months ahead.
The Ripple Effects Of Voter Disenfranchisement
Marqueia Watson, interim director for the Greater Kansas City Coalition To End Homelessness, said there is a larger trickle down effect that this type of voter disenfranchisement can cause.
“You know there’s a confluence of poverty and certainly structural racism and other forms of systemic oppression,” Watson said.
And it doesn’t help that there are a lot of misconceptions around people who are experiencing homelessness, she said.
“There’s this notion that a person is homeless because they are mentally ill or because they have a substance use disorder, and in my mind, it's just not true,” Watson said.
Experts say poverty and lack of affordable housing are the main causes of homelessness in the United States.
LaWanda Swoopes said some days at Hope Faith’s drop in center can be overwhelming. But it's fulfilling work, she said, especially when she hears these words:
“I got my own place, I don’t need the box anymore.”