Honeymoon in Cleveland
Skipping the beach to register homeless voters in a swing state
CLEVELAND, Oh — “You want to come register to vote for the president of the United States?” asks Yoni Lehrer, 29, inside Cleveland’s West Catholic Center. “It’s smooth, it’s easy, and we’ve got the van right outside!”
A red and white van is indeed parked outside. Along with his wife Vivian, a 28-year-old public interest lawyer, Yoni intends to fill it up with homeless voters.
The New York couple got married in mid-September. This is their weeklong honeymoon.
“We figured the beach can wait,” Vivian said. “The tropical paradise will be there later, but this election is happening now, and there’s a role that we can play now.”
The van belongs to the Northeastern Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), a non-profit organization that advocates for homeless people’s rights. Along with two other groups manning vans, the Lehrers were helping homeless people take advantage of a recent Ohio Supreme Court decision that allowed voters to both register and vote between Sept. 30 to Oct. 6.
They did not choose swing-state Ohio by chance.
“There’s a lot of dominos that are going to fall down from who is elected. And it sort of starts in Ohio,” Vivian said.
Thousands of volunteers like the Lehrers have left their red or blue states, and rushed to Ohio and other swing states to help turn out voters in the weeks before Election Day. The Washington Post recently reported that 4 million new voters in a dozen key states had registered over the past year.
NEOCH targets disenfranchised citizens: typically jobless and homeless African-Americans and Latinos.
“A lot of them have been in jail; they feel they were treated like garbage and they don’t want to have nothing to do with the government,” said Yoni, who holds a graduate degree in education. “But the problem is, even if you don’t vote, it’s kind of like a vote.”
While NEOCH is non-partisan, its drives tend to help Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. An informal NEOCH survey found that 63 of 70 homeless people from the Cleveland shelters said they supported Obama.
So why not simply get involved in the political race instead?
“This is the most direct politics that I could possibly be doing,” laughed Vivian. “This is directly facilitating civic duty!”
With 20,000 homeless people, Cleveland is one of the most depressed areas in the country. The city’s population has halved over the past 50 years. The loss of manufacturing jobs has now been followed by a tsunami of home foreclosures. A 2007 Realty-Trak survey found that Cleveland’s 44105 zip code had the largest number of foreclosures in the nation.
“If politicians recognize the size of [the homeless] population, and that this population does vote … then I think [they] will start to make better decisions,” predicted Sheryl Thomas, a director of the 400-bed Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s Men shelter, the city’s largest.
The shelter has organized voter registration drives and workshops on how to use voting machines.
“They persuaded me it’ll be better this time,” said Ralph Payne, 38, who responded to the call on his way to his waste management plant job. “They’re gonna count [my ballot], so maybe the vote won’t get lost,” he said hopefully, recalling the 2004 election.
Clinton Pruitt, 44, cannot afford his own place, and lives with friends. The Lehrers met him in a park near the Westside Catholic Center, where homeless people go for food, clothing and shelter.
“This is a different election,” Pruitt said from the back of the van, on the way to the Board of Elections. “This country needs a change, and it’s not getting any better.”
At the Board of Elections, it takes him about 15 minutes to register. The process is easy: a social security number and a shelter’s address suffice.
Pruitt voted for Obama, as did Ralph Payne, and most of the homeless people the Lehrers met. The candidate has been attractive to Cleveland residents since early this year.
“In the primaries, we could see the trend coming, so the light bulb went off,” said Dennis Anderson, a community outreach manager for the Board of Elections. He now expects twice as many voters to vote in the general election as in the primary.
Indeed, 75,000 more voters than in 2004 are registered in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County to vote in the general election – above the 65,000 margin by which President George W. Bush won Ohio that year.
And if all these new voters show up on Nov. 4, Cleveland’s homeless people might come to think that their votes counted after all.
A homemade sign offered residents of Cleveland's largest men's shelter free shuttle rides to the Board of Elections, where they could simultaneously register and vote.
Photo by Ivan Couronne
Vivian Lehrer, 28, a public interest lawyer from New York, and her husband Yoni, spent their honeymoon in Cleveland registering homeless voters.
Photo by Ivan Couronne
Yoni Lehrer, 29, helped shuttle residents of Cleveland’s biggest men’s shelter to a local Board of Elections office, where they could simultaneously register and vote.
Photo by Ivan Couronne