Ottawa

Homeless shelter holds voter registration clinic at soup kitchen

Politics isn’t usually the buzz at the soup kitchen at the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter, but a group of local organizations are trying to change that, in an effort to get more homeless people to the polls.

'When I walked out of that polling station I felt like a person, like a citizen'

Matthew Gaudet helps a client of the Shepherds of Good Hope soup kitchen to vote ahead of the federal election. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Politics isn't usually the buzz at the soup kitchen at the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter, but a group of local organizations are trying to change that, in an effort to get more homeless people to the polls.

It's hard to think about which federal candidate best represents you when you're worried about where you're going to sleep at night, said Robert Chilton, who just recently became homeless.

"I wasn't going to register. I told myself I could care less because I got bigger fish to fry," he said. 

Chilton once worked as a poll clerk for the NDP, but lately he said he's been concerned about surviving. 

CBC News spoke with peer support worker Matthew Gaudet, Caroline Cox with Shepherds of Good Hope, and Robert Chilton, who recently became homeless, about the need for voting clinics geared toward Ottawa's homeless residents. 1:00

That's fairly typical of people with precarious housing, but government policies often have a huge impact on those people, said Matthew Gaudet, a peer worker with Inner City Health.

That's why Inner City Health set up a registration clinic in the soup kitchen for the first time. 

Case workers at the shelter regularly register their clients as voters, but workers at the shelter said this is a way to reach others in the community who may not sleep there.

Matthew Gaudet with Ottawa Inner City Health said registering homeless people to vote is personal to him, as someone who once lived in a shelter. (Laura Osman/CBC)

"People are making decisions about their lives and how to spend money to help these people," Gaudet said. 

"They should have a right to be able to vote for the people that are making decisions on their behalf."

Getting informed a challenge 

Elections Canada said there are few people studying the voter turnout of homeless people, but there's no doubt that group faces greater obstacles to voting.

Without a fixed address or government issued identification, registering is a challenge. Elections Canada provides some solutions, including letters declaring a shelter as a voter's address.

The person can also have someone vouch for them at the polling station. 

That's why special registration clinics like the one at the Shepherds is so helpful, Gaudet said. 

He was once homeless himself, and remembers what it was like casting his ballot after that experience.

"When I walked out of that polling station I felt like a person, like a citizen, again and I wanted to be able to give that same feeling to everyone else," he said.

Of course, getting people registered is only half the battle. Helping people get informed about the issues is also a challenge.

Robert Chilton said he's more concerned with survival than politics right now. (Laura Osman/CBC)

"If you don't have your laptop going or you don't have a television you kind of feel out of the loop," Chilton said. 

Inner City Health put together a primer on party platforms, and the shelter has also invited candidates to come by the soup kitchen during the election.

People on the street don't often talk about politics, Chilton said, and when they do it's often pessimistic — like their vote won't matter anyway.

That's why he's decided to vote after all — to fight that pessimism.

"We live in a great country. We've got choices," he said. 

Peer support workers from the shelter say they are planning to walk groups of people over to the polling stations on election day to help them cast their ballots.