On Election Day, Chicago’s homeless population grapples with what it means for them to vote

An encampment under Lake Shore Drive. (Hannah Lichtenstein/ Medill Reports)

By Hannah Lichtenstein

Medill Reports 

On the day millions headed to the polls to vote for an American president, Mike McCool offered up a very different option for the country’s future leadership.

“I think this country should just turn itself back over to England and say, ‘we apologize for the Revolutionary War. We’ll never do it again,’” he said. 

McCool admitted he does not care much about how the 2020 election turns out and did not vote. As one of the 76,998 Chicagoans experiencing homelessness, his focus lands less on which politicians the masses entrust with policy-making and more on his immediate needs and stability. “I’ve got my own issues to worry about,” the 64-year-old said, “I’m trying to straighten out my life.” 

Four and a half miles away in Uptown on the Tuesday morning, JD Steele Jr. expressed similar apathy. “They (politicians) are all the same,” the 76-year-old former precinct captain said while on his way to grab beer from a local store, “it won’t matter much what happens I think.” Even more unconcerned with the implications of Nov. 3, 2020 was Robert Montgomery. Approached with the question of whether he voted, the 50-year-old replied: “George Bush.”

The feelings of disconnect from the country’s larger political moments are common among the homeless population, according to Neressa Billingsley, a case manager at Lincoln Park Community Services. Educating those guests who “aren’t as thrilled about voting” is part of the work the 38-year-old and her colleagues do at the homeless shelter. 

Billingsley noted, however, that there is a portion of their guests who do not need any coaxing to get involved in the democratic process. “Sometimes we have those who are avid voters,” she said, “They work the polls and they’ve been doing it for years even throughout their circumstances.” 

Their circumstances include cycles of substance abuse that make people experiencing homelessness unable to hold down a job. They include increased interactions with police that force them to move tents from one street to the next. In American cities, the realities the homeless population reckons with do not scream, “this place is for you” or “this is yours.” 

Which is perhaps why, for some members of the homeless population, voting stands as an important opportunity to take ownership. Dennis Nelson, 54, sees taking ownership of America’s future as being intrinsically tied to his own situation. He identified as middle class before he lost his job, which is why he says he voted in the interests of the middle class in this election. Tremel James, a 53-year-old former secretary who has been homeless since 2009, was also motivated by the sense of ownership that comes with voting. 

“I don’t want anybody to say, ‘well if you’ve got all these problems then you should have voted.’” he said. 

Hannah is a sports journalism student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @HannahLichten.