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By MegAnne Liebsch

October 9, 2020 — Mornings are always busy at the Harry Tompson Center (HTC), a Jesuit non-profit combatting homelessness in New Orleans. Just after dawn, they open for breakfast and “sunrise showers” for over 45 people. As the U.S. presidential election looms, these services also provide an opportunity for political organizing. Over the last few weeks, staff have helped guests register to vote and get updated information about casting a ballot amid the pandemic.

Housing insecurity prevents many people from voting. Although you don’t need a permanent address to register, there are many other barriers—voter ID laws, prior conviction records, and lack of transportation to the polls. As a result, low-income communities have lower voter turnout than wealthier zip codes.

An HTC employee helps register a guest to vote (Courtesy of the Harry Tompson Center).

The guests at HTC “are just in survival mode, and they’re trying to navigate through getting their basic needs met,” says HTC’s assistant director Eva Sohl. They struggle with mental health issues, disabilities and trauma. Homelessness erodes self-esteem. “People are often treated like they are invisible or not worthy of respect,” Sohl says.

HTC is trying to flip that script. Their services provide for basic needs, and most importantly, offer a community where guests are treated with dignity and respect. “It can help build up that self-esteem, so that you see that you have value and that you matter, and that you’re an important part of this community, and your voice is important.”

Along with other local service providers, the HTC began asking guests if they wanted assistance registering to vote in the upcoming election. Staff found that most guests were already registered. When people experiencing homelessness apply for housing, SNAP benefits, or a mailing address, these application processes include the option to register to vote.

Now, the challenge is getting people to the polls, Sohl says. The pandemic makes it impossible to organize transportation on Election Day. Instead, HTC is directing guests to nearby City Hall, where they can vote early.

HTC’s efforts are crucial in clearing hurdles to civic engagement for unhoused people. “It’s an important part that we can all play in encouraging people to feel that they matter. And therefore, be more likely to show that their vote would matter,” Sohl says.

The 2020 election is embattled by threats of voter suppression and intimidation — especially in underrepresented communities. In a recent statement, faith leaders in Washington, DC, raised concerns about election fairness.

“We are deeply troubled by any actions or statements that intimidate voters or deny safe and equal access to voting, or that sow doubt in electoral outcomes and raise a threat of violence,” reads the interfaith statement. “Such efforts to corrupt and undermine core electoral freedoms must be condemned in the strongest of terms across the political spectrum.”

“Every person should be free to vote and every vote should be counted,” says Fr. Ted Penton, SJ, one of the statement’s signatories. As secretary of the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology, Fr. Penton says this is a time to focus on the fundamental values that unite us, not partisan gain. “In the midst of a pandemic the process will inevitably take longer than usual, calling for patience. I pray that all candidates will put the common good above their own personal interests, to ensure that our election is free, fair and safe for all.”

Voter suppression tactics have spawned a “long history of racial disenfranchisement” in the U.S, according to the statement. “This nation can only live up to its democratic ideals when all are confident that they can vote freely and without undue hardship for the candidates of their choosing.”

These “undue hardships” often fall on the most vulnerable people in society—the elderly, communities of color, the poor. The teachings of St. Ignatius call us to walk with the vulnerable. That means removing barriers to civic participation and using our right to vote to promote equity and justice.

“Casting a ballot is an act of love—a way to live out the greatest commandments, to love and serve God and to love our neighbor,” says Chris Kerr, director of Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN).

ISN’s Voting Is an Act of Love Campaign helps people register to vote and encourages people to “support the common good.” So far, hundreds of people from across the country have joined the campaign. ISN and their partners will host Get Out the Vote events throughout the month of October.

Faith leaders in DC also denounced attempts to discredit election results. “…All candidates and parties must commit to respect the true election results, regardless of who wins — preserving democracy is more important than the success of any individual candidate,” reads the statement. “The choice in this moment is clear and stark: shared commitment to sustaining and strengthening the ideals of our democracy, or a descent into an antidemocratic future to secure partisan gains.”