Homeless Albertans expect more from candidates ahead of provincial election

More than 5,000 Albertans struggle with homelessness, and about 90 per cent of them are of eligible voting age, according to Homeward Trust stats. They say they often feel 'unheard' by political candidates.

'You want to speak and be my voice, then you need to hear our voices as well'

Desiree MacKenzie is one of more than 5,000 homeless people in Alberta. About 90 per cent of the province's homeless population is of eligible voting age. (Anya Zoledziowski/CBC)

Desiree MacKenzie doesn't need anyone to give her a voice — she already has one.

Now, she wants politicians to listen.

The 50-year-old Edmonton woman said she's excited to cast her ballot in Alberta's provincial election on April 16, because it's a way for her to advocate for her community.

More than 5,000 Albertans struggle with homelessness, and about 90 per cent of them are of eligible voting age, according to statistics from Homeward Trust.

The province's new Election Act, which governs this year's election, aims to make voting more accessible for all Albertans, including those experiencing homelessness. 

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Under the new act, regulations dictating voter eligibility have relaxed, and Elections Alberta plans to set up polling stations in homeless shelters across the province on election day including Edmonton's Boyle Street Community Services, the Mustard Seed in Calgary, the Neighbours Outreach Wetaskiwin and the Camrose Women's Shelter.

With voting booths inside shelters, homeless voters who struggle to move around will have an easier time grabbing hold of a ballot, said Drew Westwater, Elections Alberta's chief elections officer

"We tried to make [voting] as easy as possible for all Albertans this year," he said.

Elections Alberta will have a polling station at Boyle Street Community Services on election day. (CBC)

People who don't have a fixed address or an identification card are also able to vote this year.

A new form available at shelter polling stations allows staff to vouch for their clients. They can list the shelter they're affiliated with in lieu of a residential address or ID.

People struggling with homelessness feel 'unheard'

Despite Elections Alberta's efforts to make voting more accessible, there is still a lack of candidates visiting homeless shelters during the campaign. 

As a result, homeless voters still feel unheard, MacKenzie said.

She said candidates haven't spent enough time getting to know homeless constituents, making it difficult for her community to get involved in politics.

"If [candidates] were really listening, so many people wouldn't be falling through the cracks of our system."

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Only one candidate, the Alberta Party's Bob Philp, has visited Boyle Street during the campaign.

Philp doubles as a member of the shelter's board of directors, but took a leave of absence for the election.

Bringing elections to the homeless

Philp's colleague, Alberta Party candidate Colette Smithers, was 50 when she found herself without a home.

Smithers acknowledged politicians need to engage with marginalized populations more and said she's thrilled to hear Elections Alberta will introduce polling stations to shelters.

"There's so much shame and doubt and feelings of not belonging that comes with this situation of being homeless that they won't take the step out for fear of being shamed and embarrassed," she said.

"To have something as important as an election come to you, come to your space where you're comfortable … it's just magic."

Across Alberta, people experiencing homelessness make up less than one per cent of the population. But advocates and community leaders believe politicians need to reach out to voters struggling with homelessness regardless.

There's so much shame and doubt and feelings of not belonging that comes with this situation of being homeless that they won't take the step out for fear of being shamed and embarrassed.- Colette Smithers, Alberta Party candidate

Elliott Tanti, Boyle Street's communications lead, knows nearly all of the centre's clients by name.

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When asked why politicians should care about the centre, Tanti urged people to remember everyone could risk homelessness at some point.

"[Homelessness] is one of the most pertinent issues in our society … in this election, we're talking about jobs and the economy and those sorts of issues. Well, when things don't go well, this is the last place [Albertans] end up. This is where people have to go. This is it," Tanti said.

Tanti said homeless people who don't have access to phones or computers might have a harder time staying informed because many political parties post information on social media and online.

While shelters do what they can to help their clients access political resources, face-to-face interactions between homeless Albertans and candidates would help.

Joanna Neuman thinks political candidates should visit shelters in person. (Anya Zoledziowski/CBC)

Joanna Neuman, who started helping others at Boyle Street after overcoming homelessness herself, still doesn't know if she's going to vote in this year's election.

"That's another reason I sometimes don't want to vote. No matter who you vote for, nine times out of 10 they don't follow everything," Neuman said. "I really think [candidates] should come down here, give a little speech, or just come in for lunch. Volunteer for a day. Do something."

'It's about time we are appreciated for who we are'

MacKenzie said keeping up with politics is important to her and she's not the only one at Boyle Street who plans to vote.

She had a message for candidates.

"You want to come and say you want to speak and be my voice, then you need to hear our voices as well," she said.

"We all have a story, and we're all powerful, and we all have a lot to offer. It's about time that we are  appreciated for who we are."

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