British Columbia

The homeless count: Challenges of voting with no fixed address

Homeless residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside say voting, or trying to vote, in Canadian elections can often be incredibly challenging with minimal benefits.

Lack of mandatory ID at the ballot box can be a big roadblock for homeless voters

Fernando Luarca says it is embarrassing and frustrating to be constantly told he cannot vote without proper ID. (Rafferty Baker/CBC )

Fernando Luarca says he tries to vote every time there is an election and every time he gets turned away.

The reason?

Luarca, who is homeless, has no photo identification. 

In 2007, then prime minister Stephen Harper amended the Canada Elections Act, making it mandatory for voters to show ID. Various forms of identification are accepted, and people without ID can get an individual or organization to vouch for them, but advocates and homeless voters say the process is frustrating and silences already vulnerable voices. 

"There are already many obstacles to homeless people voting, coming from their socioeconomic status and all kinds of other circumstances … why on Earth Canada has placed another obstacle in the way of these people voting is beyond me," said Vancouver lawyer Jim Quail in an interview for CBC's The Current.

Vancouver lawyer Jim Quail challenged the amendment to the Canada Elections Act that made photograph identification mandatory but the B.C. Supreme Court did not rule in his favour. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Quail challenged the amendment in B.C. Supreme Court in 2008 but lost in 2010. He said if he had it his way, someone like Luarca could swear a declaration confirming citizenship and residency at the polling station, and then be allowed to vote.

Luarca says it is living homeless in the city's Downtown Eastside (DTES) that has made him care about politics. He wants to be able to vote to improve conditions for homeless people, but he's tired of being embarrassed and silenced.

"When you go to the polling station they're not really nice when they tell you that you cannot vote," he said.

"Every single time I go to a polling station they said, 'Oh your name is not here, how come you didn't do this?' What they don't know is I did try."

This year, Luarca is paying for a passport so there will be no problems. The $75 processing fee is a big sacrifice, but one he is willing to make.

"There's empowerment to that because it's very important to be heard," said Luarca.

Amy 'Yesterday' House, seen here at her tent in Oppenheimer Park, says she has managed to vote in the past without having identification but isn't determined to do it this year because she is losing trust in elected officials. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Service providers, like shelters and soup kitchens, can fill out attestations for guests, giving them an address to take to the polls.

That's how Amy "Yesterday" House managed to vote in past elections. 

But House, who lives in a small tent among many others in Oppenheimer Park, isn't as determined as Luarca to make sure she votes this year.

House says she regrets voting in the past, saying she's losing trust in the people that get elected.

"I don't like liars, so I don't really know if I'm going to vote or not, you know?" said House.

But she said there can be benefits to voting. 

"The MPs, they will go get people they know. They'll give them bus tickets, It's just in and out … and then they'll have sandwiches and pop," said House.

Richard Vanderwal, 48, has never voted, but said after he lived in a tent for almost a year he realized he wanted to participate in the democratic process. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Richard Vanderwal, 48, has never voted, but said after he participated in a tent city protest two years ago his perspective changed.

"I realized, hey, here I am on the fringes of society but I do have a voice. It reminded me, you know what? We live in a democracy, one person, one vote," said Vanderwal.

Vanderwal said he doesn't have ID right now, but staff at the Union Gospel Mission, where he is about to start a six-month drug and alcohol program after spending months living in a tent, volunteered to help get his documents in order so he can go the polls.

He's excited about participating in the democratic process for the first time.

"I feel like a citizen, part of the citizenry, whereas I lived in obscurity for years," said Vanderwal.

To hear the complete documentary that aired on The Current, click on the audio link below:

"Here I am on the fringes of society, but I do have a voice," says Richard Vanderwal. At 48, he's planning to vote for the first time in the upcoming election. He's one of the homeless residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside who the CBC's Rafferty Baker interviewed for this documentary, "A Little Voice." 23:07

Produced by Rafferty Baker and Joan Webber

With files from The Current

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