Homeless New Yorkers and the Right to Vote

Election Day is fast approaching, and this November 4th residents of New York will be faced with some important choices. In addition to the momentous election for President and members of Congress, New Yorkers will be choosing members of the State Legislature and Assembly and – given the current economic recession, the fiscal crunch, and the ongoing crises of homelessness and housing affordability – the decision will have lasting impact on low-income and homeless people statewide.

Homeless New Yorkers will also be going to the polls, in large part thanks to a landmark court ruling that is less than 25 years old.

In 1984 the United States District Court, Southern District, ruled in Pitts v. Black – a lawsuit brought by Coalition for the Homeless on behalf of several homeless people – that local boards of election in New York could not prohibit homeless people from registering to vote.

The Pitts v. Black case challenged the disenfranchisement of homeless New Yorkers. A group of homeless people sued the State and City Boards of Election because homeless people residing in shelters, hotels, or on the street were not permitted to register to vote. Before trial, a consent decree was entered permitting homeless people in shelters to vote. In October 1984, the Federal district court ordered election officials to permit persons living on the streets to register to vote. A two week extension of the time for the homeless to register to vote in the 1984 election was also ordered by the district court.

While this landmark court ruling secured the right to vote for homeless New Yorkers, homeless people in many other states continue to struggle against barriers to voting – the National Coalition for the Homeless has information about homeless voting efforts nationwide.

Homeless Kids and School Absenteeism

A new report from the Center for New York City affairs at The New School paints a troubling portrait of chronic absenteeism in New York City public schools and notes that it primarily affects children in low-income neighborhoods. The report, “Strengthening Schools by Strenthening Families” (available here), concludes that, “Chronic absenteeism in elementary schools is disproportionately a problem in poor and minority communities and it immediately puts students behind their middle-class peers.” (The New York Times provides a summary of the report here.)

In its executive summary, the report states that two of the major causes of chronic absenteeism are “dislocations caused by eviction” and “traveling between homeless shelters.” Unfortunately, the report does not highlight how the City’s homeless policies exacerbate these problems.

Data from the New York City Department of Homeless Services show that during the last fiscal year nearly 34,000 different NYC children slept in municipal shelters, more 18,000 of them school-age kids, and that at least one out of every five school-age homeless children failed to attend school regularly.

Research and experience have shown that homeless kids have a harder time in school, in part because the instability of their families’ lives makes it harder to attend classes regularly. Making matters worse, the Department of Homeless Services’ intake and placement policies often prevent children from attending school for long periods of time by bouncing them from one shelter to another night after night.

So, one way the Bloomberg administration can address chronic absenteeism – and help struggling homeless students – is to reform City homeless policies to ensure that every homeless school-age child can attend school.

New Study on the Working Poor

Alarming data from a new report reveals that in 2006 – well before the worsening economic downturn – more than one out of four working families nationwide is low-income. The study, “Working Hard, Still Falling Short,” also documents that 21 million children live in low-income working households nationwide, and that income inequality among working families increased nearly 10 percent between 2002 and 2006.

The report, prepared by the Working Poor Families Project in collaboration with state and local organizations, also includes data about the worsening situation of working poor families in New York state. Among the key findings are the following:

* In 2006, 69 percent of working poor families in New York spent more than one third of their income on housing, compared to 59 percent of such families in 2002;
* Nearly one-third (31 percent) of children in New York lived in low-income working families in 2006; and
* Income inequality among working families in New York was worse than in any other state. In 2006, families in the top 20 percent made 11.5 times as much as families in the bottom 20 percent, a ratio that is almost a third higher than the national average.

The New York Times’ City Room blog has a good summary of the report’s findings. With the national and local economies entering a deeper recession, there is every reason to expect additional hardships for New York City’s working poor.

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