In 2009, Benny Donnelly was homeless on the streets of Dublin. Mostly he slept rough, though occasionally he managed to spend the night in a hostel. But he was determined to have his say in the Treaty of Lisbon referendum.
Donnelly was unsure of what procedure to follow, since he didn’t have an address. But, sure of his right to vote, he headed to Bridewell Garda Station – the closest one to Merchants Quay hostel – to register. “There was no one willing to help,” he recalls.
Despite his efforts, he never learned how to register to vote without a permanent address, and he’s unclear on the matter to this day. “If there was a referendum on abortion tomorrow, I’d want to vote,” he says.
But he wouldn’t know how.
Article 16 of the Constitution guarantees the right to vote in Dáil elections to all citizens over the age of 18. But for some it is much more difficult to vote than for others.
How to Vote When You’re Homeless
Anthony Flynn, director of Inner City Helping Homeless, says it’s not easy.
“Information, in general, is very hard to find and isn’t generally advertised,” he says. “There’s no information in regard to how homeless people can access a voting card.”
A number of thorough Google searches confirms this. There are details of how homeless people can vote in Canada, America and the UK, but nothing to shed light on the Irish situation.
The Citizen’s Information website didn’t contain this information either, and, after four phone calls and 40 minutes of listening to grinding hold music on their phone line, I gave up on them.
Dublin City Council are responsible for the register of electors in the city, and I asked the press office about the process for homeless people who want to register to vote.
“Dublin City Council liaises with the homeless agencies and our own homeless section to ensure anyone who wishes to register to vote is facilitated,” a spokesperson said. Homeless people can use the address of a hostel or their emergency accommodation to register, they said.
Sorcha Donohoe of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive said her organisation worked on the issue in the last election. “We made sure all services received voter forms so that all persons could register at that service,” she said.
That makes it sound straightforward, doesn’t it? But those working in homeless services say it’s actually rather complicated.
Proof of Address
If you’re homeless, you can use your emergency accommodation as your address “in principle”, says Mike Allen, director of advocacy for Focus Ireland. But that only really works if you have a longer-term placement, which many people don’t.
People in emergency accommodation for a six-month placement can request proof of address and then request a polling card, explains Flynn, of Inner City Helping Homeless. But those in short-term accommodation don’t get the opportunity to ask for proof of address.
If they’re bouncing from hostel to hostel every night, or from hotel room to hotel room every few days, then they’re not going to be around long enough to get polling card.
Flynn says this complication means that many homeless people aren’t getting the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.
Even prisoners can easily register to vote, says Christy Burke, independent councillor for Dublin’s North Inner City, and a candidate in the upcoming general election. “That’s their democratic right,” he says.
For homeless people, “it’s bad enough that they have no home, but they have no vote either,” says Burke.
Would Homeless People Vote If They Could?
A young man stepped outside of Focus Ireland’s café in Temple Bar. Pulling a can of Druids from inside his coat, he sat down on the steps to the right.
Though he may not be the image of a stereotypical voter, he says he’s always voted. Even during his stint in prison, he made sure to have his say.
He wants to vote in the upcoming general election, but has no idea how he would go about it.
“I would imagine there’s a considerable amount of [homeless] people who want to vote,” says Flynn.
Focus Ireland’s Allen admits that some homeless people aren’t the most proactive of voters. But he thinks this is exactly why they should be encouraged to vote, rather than hindered.
And there are others who would make the extra effort, if they knew the procedure.
The demographics of those accessing homeless services have completely changed over the last few years, says Flynn.
As well as those who have issues with drugs and may be less inclined to vote, he says, there are also lots of families and people who got into the habit of voting before becoming homeless.
A Missed Opportunity for Politicians?
Of all the seven people I spoke with, only one homeless woman admitted to not wanting to vote.
Two other homeless men said they’d like to vote, but wouldn’t have a clue how. They weren’t sure who they’d vote for, and began discussing different candidates in the Dublin Central constituency.
One sounded like a Mary Lou McDonald fan. The other mentioned meeting Christy Burke – though they were both still undecided.
Another homeless man, Denis Creagh, says he’d be “very interested” in voting. “But I don’t know where to start,” he says, while sitting on the ground on George’s Street.
Creagh believes there’s a perception that the homeless aren’t inclined to vote, or aren’t concerned with politics, but he thinks this is untrue. “Homeless people are very opinionated,” he says.
He hasn’t voted since he moved out of his family home, but he’s just acquired a six-month placement, and says he might try to register now that he has an address.
Creagh expresses surprise at the fact that he’s never seen posters about voting in the city’s hostels. He’s never seen any election posters either – or candidates, for that matter.
“The majority of homeless people I meet are Irish, and if it was made easier and our rights were explained, it could be the difference for someone getting a place in the Dáil,” he says.
With an upward trend of homeless adults, he could have a point. Some 3,328 adults were accessing emergency accommodation in the Dublin region last September, according to figures from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive.
If a politician canvassed Creagh and followed through on promises for homeless services, he says, that politician would get his vote for life.
Councillor Burke says he canvasses Maple House Hostel on the North Circular Road, and runs across lots of people who want to vote. “I always get a great reaction,” he says.
What Could Be Done?
Burke doesn’t see why the voting process hasn’t already been made easier for homeless people.
They all have medical cards with PPS numbers, so why can’t polling stations be set up in homeless-service centres like Merchants Quay or the Simon Community? he asks.
He’d like to see a pilot scheme trying this out, but isn’t holding out hope that it will happen for this general election. “There’s no will to make it easy for them,” he says.
Years ago, Focus Ireland helped homeless people register to vote, mostly by providing explanatory material. But the charity has no plans to do that for the upcoming election.
Flynn says providing information to the homeless on voting is a priority for Inner City Helping Homeless, and he plans to discuss it at the charity’s next meeting.
Though charities have a part to play on this issue, Flynn says, it’s Dublin City Council that should be informing people of their right to vote and how they can exercise it.