Chicago’s homeless discouraged from voting in primaries

Garland Arnold
Garland Arnold is prioritizing his daughter and her cat, Blessing, over voting in the March 15 primary. (Harry Huggins/MEDILL)

By Harry Huggins

While Chicagoans line up next Tuesday to vote in the presidential primaries, those who suffer from policy and market failures will be on the streets and in shelters.

In 2013, former Governor Pat Quinn signed the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless, which includes the right to vote, register to vote and, if necessary, receive identification necessary to vote. But few of the more than 125,000 people living without a permanent home in Chicago will exercise that right next week.

During general elections, organizations like the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless team up with shelters and service providers to run registration drives across the city.

However, primaries, even those as contested as next week’s, get less attention. Anne Bowhay, media director for the Coalition, said it won’t conduct any big voting pushes for March 15.

That means people like Garland Arnold remain disenfranchised. Arnold sells drawings outside of the Target store at State and Madison streets and sleeps in a nearby alley. He voted in 2012 for President Barack Obama, which wasn’t easy, because he had “one foot out” of homelessness at the time, sleeping at a friend’s house.

Arnold knows he has the right to vote, but he has other priorities—he takes care of a daughter and her cat. Without help from a service provider, he won’t be in line at any polling station next week.

“It’s a waste of time,” Arnold said. “I’ve learned through time that politicians are worried about their jobs and getting money. They’re not interested in helping me. If they were, this situation would be much better than what it is now.”

“They shoo us away from sitting in front of City Hall, then they use us when they want to show off their projects.”

Arnold has seen politicians pass him on the street. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel ran for reelection in 2015, he bought a drawing from Arnold.

“He put some money in my pocket for my daughter and me, but I’m still here,” Arnold said. “They shoo us away from sitting in front of City Hall, then they use us when they want to show off their projects.”

Chez Ordoñez manages public relations for the Salvation Army in Chicago. Their outreach vans connect homeless people with shelter and services, and when people come in to their family shelter, case managers will work with them to get them identification and register them to vote.

Ordoñez said the Salvation Army doesn’t focus particularly on enfranchisement, even during election years, but he does see the many obstacles between homeless people and the voting booth. Lack of identification is a prime road block, which is difficult to overcome without a permanent address. Even with ID, homeless people struggle to find transportation to and from polling locations.

Jerry Burton is one of the thousands of Chicagoans who fall somewhere between homeless and fully housed—he sleeps on a friend’s couch. He hasn’t voted in his memory.

“I don’t understand how to vote,” Burton said. He filled out a voter registration card with a public aid officer when he signed up for food stamps, but he’s been waiting for someone to explain the voting process to him.

John Fillicetti
John Fillicetti’s frostbitten foot will prevent him from casting his ballot next week, as other obstacles have prevented him from voting since the 1960s. (Harry Huggins/MEDILL)

John Fillicetti has been homeless for 13 years and last voted in the 1960s. He said personal problems have always gotten in the way of voting, including a frostbitten foot this year.

Even if he could get to a polling place, he wouldn’t know who to support. Without a TV, radio or access to the internet, Fillicetti has no information on the candidates.

Unlike Fillicetti, Arnold at least knew enough about the election to make fun of Donald Trump, calling him “a farce.” But he views most politicians with hard-eyed cynicism.

“They’re getting their money. What am I getting?” Arnold said. “I need a job. I need housing. If I vote for them, are they gonna get me that?”

Photo at top: Garland Arnold is prioritizing his daughter and her cat over voting in the March 15 primary. (Harry Huggins/MEDILL)