Homeless people are getting more than a warm lunch from Sisters of the Road Cafe this year. They're getting a chance to vote.
Recognizing Oregon's vote-by-mail system requires a mailing address for Oregonians to get their ballot, Sisters offers its address of 133 NW 6th Ave. to its homeless clientele.
"It is a golden prize to be able to vote again," says Julio Vazquez Sr. "I thought it was gone forever."
Vazquez, a 54-year-old registered Democrat, hasn't voted since Bill Clinton's re-election in 1996. A convicted felon who served time in California for assault with a deadly weapon, Vazquez didn't know felons may vote in Oregon if they're no longer incarcerated (see "Oregon's Felonious Spunk," WW, Aug. 3, 2005).
"One of my buddies told me I could vote here," Vazquez says. "But I didn't believe it."
Sisters, a Northwest Portland nonprofit that provides meals and other services, began registering homeless people during the 2004 election by just making voter registration cards available to its customers. Oregon law lets homeless people use a shelter address or other place they frequent as their permanent address because "the Legislature specifically wanted to make sure that people who don't have permanent addresses were still able to vote," says Scott Moore, spokesman for the Oregon Secretary of State's office.
Sisters community organizer Patrick Nolen estimates 150 people registered at Sisters in 2004. This year, Sisters' goal is to double that, and register 300 homeless people by the April 29 registration deadline for the May 20 primary. Taking a more proactive approach, Sisters community organizers are talking up registration to customers and going to different events for the homeless.
"We've registered about 250 people so far," Nolen says.
Other Portland social services encourage homeless people to register, and tell them their registration can help them get state-issued IDs. But Sisters seems to be the only local gig actively encouraging clientele to register and vote.
Oregon has an estimated 16,000 homeless people—2,200 in Portland—according to the state Housing and Community Services Department. That's a potentially big pool of local and state voters.
And Nolen says candidates shouldn't assume homeless voters only care about issues relating to homelessness. They also care about the war.
Art Rios, a 37-year-old independent who registered at Sisters to vote for the first time in his life, is most interested in issues related to the war as well as affordable housing and health care.
"It's a lot more (important) than my first time," Rios says. "I want to make some good decisions."