Service groups help unhoused Oregonians vote

By Jenn Chávez (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Oct. 11, 2020 1 p.m.

Homeless service organizations like JOIN in Portland help ensure voting access for unhoused people

The deadline for Oregonians to register to vote — by midnight on Tuesday, Oct. 13 — is quickly approaching. Ballots are set to be mailed out beginning the following day. While dozens of states have expanded access to mail-in voting ahead of next month’s election in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Oregon has already been conducting its elections by mail for decades.


Registering to vote and getting a ballot in the mail can be difficult if you don’t have a permanent residential address. That’s been a challenge for people displaced by wildfires that destroyed thousands of Oregon homes in September. It’s also a challenge for people experiencing homelessness in the state, on top of other barriers to voting they already face.

Related: More Election 2020 coverage from OPB

Unhoused people have the right to register and vote in all 50 states, and Oregon election rules aim to reduce the barriers to participating in mail-in elections. While Oregon voters do need to provide an address to register, people without a fixed address can list their residential address as “any definable location in the county that describes their physical location.” That could include a motorhome or RV, a park or a shelter. For their mailing address, they have the option to list the address of their county clerk’s office while registering and pick up their ballot in person. Or, they can list the address of places like JOIN, a homeless service organization in Portland.

JOIN is one of several Portland service agencies that have been helping unhoused people vote by mail for years. One of the services JOIN’s day center provides is a mail pick-up. DiJonnette Montgomery-Thompson Pierce, JOIN’s day space coordinator, says that despite the closure of the indoor part of their space during the pandemic, they are still able to receive and distribute ballots for people, and help get people signed up before the deadline. She recently spoke to OPB about ensuring voting access for people experiencing homelessness. Here are a few highlights from the conversation:

On how people can use JOIN’s services to register to vote and get their ballots:

“Anyone can use our address [on their voter registration form]. That is the 1435 NE 81st address, Suite 100 in Portland, Oregon. They can receive mail at JOIN, including their ballots. We ask that people provide some form of identification when picking up mail or their ballots. If they need help with that, then please let us know as well so we can help. One option [for registering to vote] is over the internet. JOIN has WiFi, so if folks have smartphones or laptops, they’re welcome to bring them to our site and use our WiFi, which is free. You could just ask us for the password, and we can help you if you need that assistance. If you have a voter registration card that you need to mail off, you can also hand that to us and we’ll make sure that it gets into the mail … . We’re currently operating Monday, Wednesday and Fridays from 12 to 2 from our garden, so there’s always someone there during those hours, and we’ll come out and be able to help you with your needs.”


[Note: Oregon voter registration does require identification to vote in federal races. Fully online voter registration requires an Oregon driver’s license or ID number issued by the DMV. People who don’t have one can list other forms of ID on their voter registration form, including a social security number. This form can be filled out online, printed and mailed in.]

On barriers to voting unhoused people face:

“One of them may be your immigration status. Legal issues. There’s different reasons that people might be avoiding other folks, could be domestic violence situations, and people are reluctant to provide an address or where they’ll be currently staying. It could just be the English language in general. Some folks don’t know how to read or write, so ballots and interpreting what is written can be difficult for people as well.”

On feelings toward voting and political participation in the homeless community:

“Sometimes folks get discouraged, because they don’t feel like their voices are being heard on a local level, so they don’t see how it matters on a national level, but it does matter. Being able to have folks be available for feedback during policy meetings or other political engagement is really important. Often times, folks feel like they’re not being heard, that what is being said to them is in language that they don’t understand. Recognizing that homeless people are not a homogenized group and they are disenfranchised voters with their own opinions … I think that we would encourage people to participate more if they felt like they were being heard.”

On the importance of input from unhoused people on local political issues that affect them, like housing policy:

"No matter the best intent, unless we ask the folks that it directly affects, then we’re not really getting their feedback, we’re just assuming we know what they want. Like I said, they’re not homogenized, so we need to hear their different opinions and their suggestions, and they may have the best solution for themselves.

“Whether it’s an election year or not, it’s really important that we continuously engaged with the houseless community of Portland. They are no different than folks who are housed, and they have the same problems, and the same issues. But they are struggling with becoming stably housed, they’re struggling with various barriers, they’re struggling with being heard and being seen. As citizens and as politicians, we should constantly be reaching out to this community for feedback or solutions and just to acknowledge their presence.”

To listen to the full conversation with DiJonnette Montgomery-Thompson Pierce, JOIN’s day space coordinator, use the audio player at the top of this page.

This is a link to OPB's election coverage, ballot guide and results.