Friday, July 23, 2004

Homeless Americans Elect to Join the Political System

By Elizabeth Mehren, LA Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — For "years and years," when people told him to vote, Anthony Addison retorted that he had no faith in the political system. After all, what had it done for him, a homeless Vietnam veteran who said he was too disabled to work?

But on Thursday, as Addison, 59, joined nearly 200 other homeless people here to register as first-time voters, he declared: "This is the first step to becoming part of the system. I can stay in my shell, or I can come out and take part in the process."

That was exactly what four residents of New England's largest homeless shelter, the Pine Street Inn, had in mind last winter when they started signing people up to vote.

After visiting shelters around Boston sporadically for months, the four men decided to take their effort national, and they kicked off their campaign with a one-day drive around the country.

On Thursday, volunteers registered homeless and low-income people at 48 locations in 17 states, including California.

Katie Fisher, a field organizer in Washington for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said the campaign signed up close to 1,000 voters on Thursday alone.

In Boston, in a tent on the grounds of the international headquarters of the Christian Science Church, 170 homeless people signed up to vote. A similar effort in Worcester, Mass., an hour west of Boston, recorded 130 new voters; in New York, the number was 110.

"The whole reason we are doing this voter registration is to empower people to act on their own behalf," said Fred Atkinson, a former computer consultant who became homeless after a series of personal tragedies. "If we truly want to bridge the gap between homeless and mainstream society, we have to do it by voting."

The 23,000 homeless people in Massachusetts could fill an entire town, Atkinson said.

"And those are just the ones we can count," he said. "There are others who live in their station wagons, in tents, in cemeteries. They're out there."