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Homeless Residents Show Up to Vote In California’s Recall Election At Skid Row’s First-Ever ‘Voting Center’

12:20 PM PDT on September 13, 2021

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]here were no official voting centers in Skid Row during the 2020 general election. There were voting centers in neighboring Arts District, Little Tokyo, and then a big void in Skid Row, leaving thousands of housed and unhoused residents without access to the polls leading up to election day.

Enter the 2021 recall election where candidates have declared California Governor Gavin Newsom unfit to respond to the homelessness crisis. In Skid Row, often decried as “ground zero” for the crisis, residents finally received their official voting center on September 11.

Within minutes of the site opening, residents trickled in to cast their ballot in a recall election where businessman and candidate John Cox wants to have the courts “force homeless people to receive mental health treatment.”

Candidates want to talk all about houseless people but also seem to talk past them altogether.

Micki Gagnon arrived by an electric wheelchair to cast her ballot at the James M. Wood Community Center in Skid Row. Gagnon did not reveal how she voted but would only say that she was mad that houseless people were used as political theater by recall challengers. Candidate Caitlyn Jenner toured a homeless encampment earlier this summer. At the same time, radio talk show host Larry Elder was chased out of Venice Beach by a group of angry protesters and a person in a gorilla mask who threw an egg at him.

The idea that these candidates care so much about houseless people feels cheap to Gagnon and many other Skid Row residents.

“All of a sudden, these people want to help? The only reason they’re doing that is because the cameras are there. Any other time we’re nothing to them,” said Gagnon, who has lived in Skid Row housing since 2013. “We could sit in a garbage can for all they care.”

She quickly added, “But I understand why someone would want to remove Newsom, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, or the District Attorney. They all treat anyone who is not like them as criminals.”

L.A. residents showing up to vote in Skid Row.
Skid Row residents cast their ballots in the gubernatorial recall election at the James M. Wood Community Center on Sept. 11, 2021. Photo by Nathan Solis for L.A. TACO.

Last November, residents living in Skid Row with mobility issues were out of luck because their local polling places were gone, according to resident and activist Katherine McNenny.

A mobile station did appear in Skid Row on election day McNenny said, “But it was only open for one day. True vote centers are open five to 11 days. We didn’t get any of that, and that seemed like a big problem to me.”

Enter McNenny’s public records request with the LA County Registrar’s Office. McNenny wanted to know why the registrar’s office seemingly forgot an entire neighborhood of predominantly Black, Latino, and poor residents. She received several hundred pages of emails through her request between poll workers, volunteers, county employees, and the registrar’s office, and she detailed her findings in a Medium article earlier this year.

“I just wanted something put back that we got taken away,” McNenny said in an interview. “My interest is all about access and getting folks that access to vote.”

Let’s take a trip back to pre-pandemic times in March 2020.

LA County just unveiled its $300-million custom-built voting system that then crashed on election day. The system meant to connect voting rosters to voting centers across the county failed to sync up, leaving voters stranded in lines for hours at a time. The double-whammy of polling places gave way to voting centers, meaning fewer locations to vote. Voters had up to 10 days to vote under the new system rolled out by LA County, only that didn’t play out in Skid Row last November.

According to the registrar’s office, a houseless person without a physical address has some options to register to vote.

People living in Skid Row voted at the Downtown Women’s Center or The LA Mission in previous years. Those sites were eliminated and never replaced with any alternative sites in the 2020 general election save for a mobile vote center. In emails exchanged between county employees reviewed by L.A. TACO, there were conversations about setting up a voting alternative in Skid Row. Still, talks fizzled out, and the county settled for a site near Skid Row.

A spokesperson for LA City Councilman Kevin de León said: “Voter equity is a central theme” for the district that includes most of downtown and Skid Row. The councilman wants to make sure that “everyone has the right to exercise their right to vote,” said the spokesperson, but that de León was not in office last November, so he would not know why Skid Row was overlooked.

Spokesperson Mike Sanchez with the LA County Registrar’s Office said that the county offers outreach to seniors, people with mobility issues, and people experiencing homelessness through its mobile and Flex Vote Center program.

While the mobile vote center arrived in Skid Row last November on election day, many residents said they couldn’t find its location online and had to rely on word-of-mouth. 

Skid Row resident Micki Gagnon voted at her local vote center in the California gubernatorial recall election.
Skid Row resident Micki Gagnon voted at her local vote center in the California gubernatorial recall election. Photo by Nathan Solis for L.A. TACO.

“Voters who are unhoused or experiencing homelessness are one of the communities that our office specifically targets to serve to ensure they have an opportunity to vote in person,” Sanchez said. “As you mentioned, a Mobile location was included in 2020, and that is an official Vote Center.

The county registrar’s office tells L.A. TACO that they “look to continue this engagement and partnership” with the voting center at the James M. Wood Community Center. 

According to the registrar’s office, a houseless person without a physical address has some options to register to vote. The person can register with a shelter address to receive election material and give two cross streets near where they live as their address. But it’s unclear exactly how many houseless residents are registered in LA County, as the database does not distinguish houseless voters from anyone else.

To McNenny, it’s a big victory to have the voting center in a central location that the Skid Row community can access. But one issue sticks out clearly in her memory while reading through all the emails she received from the county.

“I just remember seeing an enormous amount of energy expended by county employees to lock down the Ace Hotel as a voting center,” said McNenny.

The landmark hotel perfect for those oh-so-casual Instagram shots of people holding up their voting stickers did end up as a voting site, but not after a lot of effort by county employees.

“There were hundreds of emails for the Ace Hotel. The county (employees) had to make sure that everything was going to be provided and the security was there, and there was just so much time paid to that,” said McNenny. “I could tell the county really wanted that location. That really upset me. Why couldn’t they look at Skid Row with the same type of energy?”

Alvin Wilder, who has lived on Skid Row for five years and is the manager at the Florence Hotel, voted to remove Newsom at the James M. Wood Community Center. He wants to see Elder in office.

Skid Row resident Micki Gagnon casts her vote in the gubernatorial recall election at her local voting center on Sept. 11, 2021.
Skid Row resident Micki Gagnon casts her vote in the gubernatorial recall election at her local voting center on Sept. 11, 2021. Photo by Nathan Solis for L.A. TACO.

“I ain’t seen any change with the homeless problem since I’ve been here,” said Wilder, who considers himself houseless because he only has a room at night through his job. “They’re doing nothing to fix this problem with all these people living like this. I guess with Elder, it’s a gamble, right? Every politician promises one thing when they’re trying to get your attention.”

Ruth Goldberg-Ives has lived on Skid Row since 1993 and is currently housed. “I don’t want Newsom to be fired because that’s not reality. He did his job,” said Goldberg-Ives.

“A recall? To remove the governor of California over homelessness and everything else that’s happened in California,” Robin said exhaustedly. “To go and blame one person doesn’t sit right with me.”

According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, she wants Newsom to keep his job even though in 2019, more people experienced homelessness in California than in any other state. And over 151,000 residents experienced some form of homelessness in the Golden State, representing 27% of the nation’s houseless population that year. In 2020, over 66,400 people experienced homelessness in LA County alone, which represented a 12% increase from the previous year and did not factor in the economic fallout from the pandemic. And so, the recall candidates have pounced on this growing crisis like low-hanging fruit.

“I’m not surprised that they’re beating Newsom around the ears on the issue because he doesn’t look like he’s been handling it, and it makes people nervous,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, political analyst and co-host of the podcast Inside Golden State Politics. “Fear is a major motivator in politics.”

Many of the attack advertisements against Newsom flash images of houseless residents portrayed as criminals or a health risk to local communities. But despite all the sound and fury of the advertisements, few people in Skid Row were even aware that the voting center opened on September 11. There were no flyers to promote the location by the county or outreach to residents in the area, according to several people interviewed by L.A. TACO. 

While the county registrar’s office maintains that a mobile vote center is an official voting location, the option did not become available on Skid Row last November until election day. Many residents said they couldn’t find the location online and had to rely on word-of-mouth to cast their ballots.  

An unhoused woman named Robin asked why people were voting.

“A recall? To remove the governor of California over homelessness and everything else that’s happened in California,” Robin said exhaustedly. “To go and blame one person doesn’t sit right with me.”

Robin promised to Google each of the other 46 candidates seeking to replace Newsom before she went to the voting center down the street.

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