Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Scary Out There!!

Finding Enemies of America Everywhere

It is that time of year to look for communists, anti-Americans, class warriors, election thieves, and the robber-barons who caused this financial collapse. Is it political sport because of the national election to label political rivals as enemies or is it something far more sinister like a new House Committee on Un-American Activities? I saw a few bogus comments from elected officials about how the National Housing Trust Fund was passed in order to subsidize ACORN. One of the most amazing charges is that ACORN is responsible for the mortgage meltdown because of their advocacy on behalf of Community Re-Investment Act. There are two good statements about CRA that bust some of the myths here at National Community ReInvestment Coalition and here at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Both of these charges are rediculous, and the media needs to do a better job to set the record straight. Greed is at the heart of the mortgage crisis not the law that protects against bank redlining their lending practices. No government forced these banks to make these loans. CRA protects communities from racist sharks attempting to keep minority populations out of a neighborhood. CRA forces banks that make money from poor communities to provide the same loan products they offer to the richer communities where they have branch offices. Greed, inflated salaries of CEOs, and attempts to make money in a dishonest manner are at the heart of the mortgage crisis. Blaming CRA for the mortgage meltdown is like blaming the gun trigger lock for excessive violence on the streets of Chicago.

I have to say that ACORN does not deserve the criticism they are currently receiving, but they do deserve some criticism for their voting activities. The Coalition did a ton of work on protecting the rights of homeless voters in 2008, 2006, and 2004. Back in the last presidential election in 2004, we paid homeless people to register other homeless people. We quickly realized that we had to set up a system to protect against fraudulant registrations being submitted. We did not want the added scrutiny from election officials, and we did not want to reward people for making up registrations. We had this extensive process put in place to protect ourselves. It is obvious that ACORN did not adopt the same standards. Maybe it is because they put in place a national system that had to conform to 30 different state laws. Maybe it has to do with the relative high turnover in staff at ACORN locally or maybe there are some other reasons. I have to say that ACORNs inability to effectively supervise a registration campaign has hurt our efforts. NEOCH was swept up in the anti-ACORN ferver, and we had a harder time settling our two voting lawsuits. They had to realize that by setting a goal of registering over one million people, they would have a huge target on their backs. They needed to set up a system to protect their agency from unnecessary criticism. Carelessness on their part makes it hard for all of us trying to do the right thing. Do not get me wrong. I do not believe that they were trying to undermine the election or there was any larger conspiracy as some suggest. It is just that the organization did not pay attention to the details, and made a whole lot of work for the local boards of elections.

Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Second Court Order On Homeless Voting

Brunner Issues Second Directive On Provisional Ballots

As discussed over the weekend, the Secretary of State issued a second directive to settle (for now) our lawsuit. There were two outstanding issues that were not covered in the directive issued Friday October 24. These issues include: what happens to a provisional ballot if the poll worker does not do their job or incorrectly completes the provisional ballot envelope? Also, what happens to the provisional ballot if a homeless person shows up and is using a non-traditional address like a park bench? The Associated Press and therefore other media have made a big deal out of this second piece, and made this seem like some "scandal" and our attempt to undermine the election. This "controversy" is bunch of people making a mountain out of a mole hill. All we settled on was that the state must uphold an existing law that dates back to Secretary of State Robert Taft. If a homeless person especially in areas that do not have enough shelters (Lorain, Ashtabula, Trumbull Counties), and has taken up residence in a tent or other structure, they should get to vote. These citizens want to vote, and this settlement allows them that opportunity. These voters would have already had to register that tent as a residence before October 6. They would most likely vote by provisional ballot, because their mail would have come back to the Board of Elections. All this settlement says is that those provisional ballots be counted in compliance with existing law.

I have to say that there are couple dozen people in the woods in Lorain County who fought for the United States in Viet Nam. These guys and their opinions about a government at war are effectively silenced without an exception to linking voting to a fixed structure. I raised these problems when the 2006 ID voting law was proposed in the legislature, but the leadership did not listen. Why shouldn't they have the opportunity to vote? I believe that they earned the right after sleeping in the rice fields in Southeast Asia and now the woods of Lorain County to decide who leads this country no matter if they live under a framed roof or not.

As an election observer in 2006, there were many problems with poll worker error and provisional ballots. The polling place I observed had around 34 people voting by provisional ballot and I saw half of those ballots incorrectly filled out by the poll worker. In fact, I think the first 15 did not have the poll worker's signature before they had a supervisor come to the polling place to give them instructions. This settlement clarifies that an individual should be allowed to have their provisional ballot counted even if the poll worker does not process the envelop correctly. This part of the settlement is the more important aspect of the agreement, but has received little attention. This entire settlement prevents a Florida-style "hanging chad" situation of mass confusion in a close election. The park bench provision will only have an impact on a couple of dozen people throughout the state, but the counting of the provisional ballot procedure could be the difference in a close election.

Brian Davis
Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Beware of the Scammers!!

Don't Give to People Claiming to Raise Money for the Shelters

There Back!! There are a group of women who claim to raise money for homeless shelters in and around Cleveland. Please do not be fooled. There are only two groups that go out and collect money on the streets that have anything to do with homelessness. Both groups are well marked and have a long history in Cleveland. The Salvation Army collects donations on the street with that familiar red kettle. The Homeless Grapevine do not collect donations, but many of the vendors are homeless or near homeless, and the pedestrian will always get a street newspaper if they give some money. Both the Grapevine and the Salvation Army are legitimate, but these women with clipboards are scammers. Please call the Police, and tell the manager of the business that they are raising money to support their own criminal activities.

We have had reports this last week that they are back in Cleveland Heights, but they travel around to shopping centers in Greater Cleveland. They have a clipboard to look official and they usually have the NEOCH published street card. They have a fake badge and use some sob story about a flood at the women's shelter or the need for money for domestic violence. The flood at the women's shelter happened over two years ago. Yes, the domestic violence center needs funds, but these women are not giving their ill-gotten funds to any charity. They also sometimes use my name, but don't be fooled. They are collecting money for themselves. They work in a team, and it is nearly impossible for the police to do anything because the victim is only losing a dollar. Where is Carl Monday when you need him?

Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Kick the Can Down the Road

Settlement in the Voting ID Case: No Hanging Chads

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the other groups suing to assure that those without identification would be able to vote entered into another temporary agreement for this election. We did not have enough time to set up a system in which a homeless person could go to a state agency and get free identification in the last week before the election. So, we did the next best thing: we were able to get an agreement on a uniform standard in counting the provisional ballots in Ohio. We will not have Hamilton County dismissing most of the provisional ballots while Madison County decides on their own strategy for counting ballots. After interviews of 20 Boards of Elections, our lawyers found wide disparity in the procedures for counting provisional ballots. There are still two outstanding issues which will be settled early next week, but otherwise the case will be kicked down the road until after the election. We did not drop the case, we compromised by receiving uniform standards.

The Secretary of State issued a directive to the local Boards of Elections under order from the federal court in Columbus. A person who became homeless in the last month will vote with a provisional ballot or those without identification will vote with a provisional ballot. This is not the best outcome, but at least we can be assured that those ballots will be counted. Unless the person votes in the wrong precinct on election day, they will have their ballot counted 10 days after the election. Every county will use the same standard for counting, and if there is a violation of the court order we can go back to federal court for relief.

I took two brothers down to court in Columbus on Thursday. Both recent veterans who found themselves homeless. Our plaintiff was a guy sleeping at Lakeside shelter who was waiting for his birth certificate and the money to get his identification. He had PTSD from some rough times in Baghdad in 2005-6, and wanted to vote on Election Day like every other citizen. He did not want to vote early or by mail. He wanted to go to a polling site as he had done in 2004 and cast his ballot for President. We could not assure that this veteran's ballot would be counted with all the disparity in counting provisional ballots. Because of the broad definition of "other government document" issued earlier this year by Secretary of State Brunner, and this settlement we know that his ballot will count.

If the legisltature does not take up some massive overhaul of the voting ID law, we may be back at the courthouse door. Right now, we got all that we could get. We are happy with the settlement, and our Iraq War veteran was happy with the results. We hope to have a smooth election, and we will not see the problems we saw in the 2004 election. It is Colorado or North Carolina's turn to mess up the voting process anyway.

Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ohio and the Hanging "Chads" of 2008

We Better Hope Ohio is Not Close this Year...

NEOCH never did settle our lawsuit over the state's requirement to force people to show identification if they want to vote in person. After our case, the Supreme Court supported Indiana's voting identification law. Our issue was in 2006 that there is no such thing as free identification in Ohio (as there is in Indiana), and many homeless people have a hard time maintaining identification. We wanted to do everything we can to avoid having homeless people have to vote with a provisional ballot. In 2006, our suit was against Kenneth Blackwell, then Secretary of State, and we eventually agreed to a compromise for the November 2006 statewide election. All of us thought with a new Secretary of State, and the luxury of time we would reach a permanent compromise. We could not reach this compromise, and so Thursday October 23, 2008, we go back to court.

This week our lawyers have been interviewing members of Boards of Elections across the state, and we have found that there is no standard for counting the provisional ballots in Ohio. This is the hanging "chads" for the 2008 election. If the election is close in Ohio, we are in big trouble. Some counties are disqualifying large numbers of potential voters, and others are using a liberal definition of verifying that the voter is a legitimate voter. While there are rules, they are not being enforced, and it is the wild wild west out in the field. Every board is doing whatever they want, and if the election comes down to provisional ballots we better wake up Justice Thomas and Stevens for another December late night decision on the presidential election. I hope that we can settle this lawsuit as we did in 2006 before the election or we have to hope that all the Ohio races are blowouts.

Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.

Don't Forget the Vendors

"Change" Campaign Includes the Grapevine

After I posted the entry about the Change campaign, I got some questions from the vendors of the Homeless Grapevine newspaper about the donation meters. They are afraid that people will put money in the meters, and not buy the street newspaper. So, let me revise my support to urge people to not forget about the Homeless Grapevine vendors. I still do not think that the meters are a problem, but I hope people will remember your friendly neighborhood vendors. The Homeless Grapevine was the original alternative to panhandling in our city, and still publishes after 16 years. Feel free to give your change to the meters, but save $1.25 for the Homeless Grapevine.

Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Anti-Panhandling Campaign a Step Forward

Parking Meters Collecting Funds to Help Homeless People

As announced in the Associated Press and the Plain Dealer, the Downtown Cleveland Alliance has installed parking meters downtown to collect donations for homeless people. I liked some of the comments in the PD/ site announcing this new strategy: "Why are we donating to the United Way? Aren't they supposed to be addressing homelessness?" Was it an attempt to answer these complaints today when the site had an advertisement for the United Way this morning on their front page about homelessness? This was one of those annoying tabs that take over the page if you happen to scroll over them. I hate those advertisements that hijack my computer screen, and to make it worse the United Way also was using outdated and incorrect statistics about homelessness locally. The reality is that United Way funds a few of the band aid programs serving homeless people, but they have not been at the forefront of funding solutions to homelessness as they are in other American cities.

Some activists around the country hate these parking meters. I view this as a step forward from the previous campaign of lecturing people not to give money to those viewed as "unworthy" or more accurately "those beyond help." These meters, in combination with the new Downtown Bus that acts as a huge billboard for this campaign, it is certainly a step forward. More resources for homeless people can never be a bad thing. I am sure that it will not raise much money and may not even pay for the gas for the Downtown Bus, but I can't see much harm in the whole campaign. Transportation is one huge problem for homeless people and having this free "Change" bus traveling between the shelters and the VA hospital is a big step forward.

This parking meter strategy also makes it seem as though we are doing something to deal with the "problem" of panhandling. It is a step forward to work on this so-called problem, when in reality when compared to other cities panhandling is a minor issue in Cleveland. We really have a small problem with panhandling, but it is the cited as the second most annoying problem with coming downtown behind parking. Pedestrians and downtown workers hate coming across a panhandler because it symbolizes the despair and human suffering in our city. So the pedestrians push for laws like the time and place restrictions panhandling legislation and the anti-tourist Public Square curfew law passed over the past three years. Both of these laws are merely feel good legislation that serve absolutely no practical purpose. The panhandling meters at least have a purpose and homeless people and panhandlers will see some benefit. In fact, they have already seen a benefit with the Downtown Bus now on the streets and available to help homeless people move around downtown for free.

There is a solid majority of pedestrians who visit downtown and claim that they do not like panhandling. In reality, many of those who are experiencing homelessness also have issues with panhandlers. Homeless people feel it is a way to get an easy buck, but it is beneath the dignity of most. A majority of homeless people see panhandling as the last resort in tough times. While we have seen a steady decrease in panhandling over the last two years for a number of reasons, we do not expect that trend to continue over the next year. Expect more people asking for help during this national recession. Finally, it is not an easy buck. Begging for money in the hot or cold or rain, and being rejected thousands of time a day is rough on your ego (see Akron Beacon Journal article).

Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Good News For Ohio Voters

United States Supreme Court Sides with Ohio Voters

Last night, the Supreme Court ruled that the Grand Old Party would not be able to search the Social Security and Ohio Division of Motor Vehicles websites to exclude voters overturning the Ninth Court of Appeals ruling earlier in the week. NEOCH lost the Grapevine case in the Ninth Court of Appeals, so we have previous experience with their bad decisions. The Supreme Court in a short decision said that the GOP would most likely not prevail, and so they were not going to force the Ohio Secretary of State to check every registration against state and national databases. I never did understand this lawsuit. The State GOP was not authorizing additional dollars to undertake this massive effort to verify every registration, so how did they expect this to get done? This was an unfunded mandate on a grand scale. It was forcing the local boards to do something that they were never set up to do--verify voting eligibility with government databases constructed for vastly different purposes.

What exactly did this mean for the average voter? Here are some examples:
  1. Joe the Plumber from Toledo had his voting registration spelled wrong when he signed up for the Natural Law Party in 1992 compared to the social security or DMV database. He would have to vote by provisional ballot and then show up at the Board of Elections within 10 days to prove that he was who he said he was. (By the way...if the Republicans had their way he should have been purged from the voting roles since he had not voted for so many elections in a row. )
  2. Any woman who did not bother to notify the Board of Elections or the Social security office that she changed her name after getting married would vote with a provisional ballot. Then she would have to take some official document to the Board and prove she is the person that voted.
  3. Those women who are married and hyphenate their names are always problematic for government databases, and may have problems because there is not a standard among the various government offices of how to characterize these hyphenated last names.
This would mean that up to one third of the new registrants could be challenged because of a mismatch. Most would most likely be Democrats, but many Republicans would certainly be caught up in this quest for bogus voters. I believe that where we would see this play out most is in small towns and small counties in an attempt to frighten potential voters.

Now, how do we address this problem going forward? I think that every citizen and every eligible voter should be automatically registered to vote. Every contact with a government entity should update registration records. If you want a fishing license--your voting registration would be checked to make sure it is accurate. When you pay your property taxes, they make sure that your address matches the voting database. If you transfer ownership of a car or property they would check your voting registration. If there is a correction, the government entity would fill out a registration change of address form and deliver it to the Board of Elections. Why do we make it so difficult for people to vote? Why should a person have to sign up to take advantage their right to vote? This current anger around registrations could all be taken care of with every citizen automatically registered. This current dispute is all nonsense and scare tactics to keep legitimate voters away from the polling place.

I also believe that every government entity should give a small benefit for everyone that votes. If you get food stamps, you get an extra $5 for voting. If you are in subsidized housing, you would get a $5 rent reduction for voting or a $5 break on your income tax for voting in every election for that year. We should automatically register everyone and give incentives for voting.

Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

NEOCH Gets Homeless People to the Polls

Volunteers and Early Voters during Golden week at the Board of Elections--photo by Josh Kanary

A Great Deal of Misinformation about Voting

We assisted with the transportation of hundreds of homeless people to the Board of Elections this last week. I heard in the media (both television and in the print media), a large number of inaccurate statements about these early voting opportunities. First, this was the second election that this opportunity was available. We tried it in 2006, but the Board was not prepared for the idea and so we shut down our efforts to focus on the identification problems for voting day.
This was not a partisan effort for any one of the campaigns. As we have done since 1992, our interest was to figure out the best time to get people without homes to the vote. This last week was the best week for homeless people, because if there was any problem with their address they could register at the same time. It does not make any sense that in the age of computers we have to close registrations 30 days before the election. For those worried about fraud, there is plenty of time to investigate these new voters. There is time to send them mail, and verify every one of the new registrants. We drove veterans who may lean toward McCain and African Americans who may lean toward Obama. We did not ask anyone their political affiliation. We went to every shelter in the city and picked up anyone and everyone who wanted to go vote. There was no partisan literature exchanged, and no volunteer was allowed to wear anything that supported either political candidate. The cause was just to get voters who may be experiencing homelessness to the polls to vote. Despite what the New York Post and Fox News says this was just an effort to best serve our constituents by providing transporation to the polling place.

Homeless people do have a right to participate in the democratic process. All the hardships that homeless people have to go through it would seem that we could at least make it as easy as possible for those who need it most to vote.
Since the Republicans wrote this voting law, and have been in power in Ohio for years, why are they complaining? How could they go to court to complain about a law that they wrote? They passed the law that allowed early voting in person at the Board of Elections. They passed the law that closed registration 30 days before the election day. They voted into law the provision that said absentee/early voting begins 35 days before the election. Any other interpretation of the law did not make sense. To follow the lawyers for the Republican party's interpretation of the registration law, the deadline for registrations should have closed in the second week in September to assure that a voter was registered for 30 days before they were allowed to ask for an absentee ballot. The other problem with their interpretation is that our system has never treated those changing their address differently from those new registrants. In the eyes of the Board, we do not have two separate deadlines for these two classifications. Those who become homeless on October 14 cannot change their registration. They must vote in the precinct that they previously lived, and they may have to vote by provisional ballot. Even the worst Ohio Secretary State in history, Ken Blackwell, did not use this bizarre interpretation of the registration deadline.

These attempts were pure and simple attempts by one party to suppress voting in Ohio, and homeless people were going to suffer because of these partisan games.
All of this shows that we need a real overhaul of the voting process in Ohio. We need to either give out free identification or eliminate the id requirements on election day. We need to go to a County based election system instead of a precinct based system, so that a person can go to any polling place on election day and vote a county-only ballot. If they do not care who is on City Council or if the local restaurant can sell alcohol, but want to vote for President and Congressman, they should have that option. There are no rules at this time for the counting of provisional ballots. What is the standard? What proof is necessary to prove that an individual ballot is valid? We should have a two week window to vote and register at the same time, and every county should have to pay for vote by mail ballots. Or better yet, the federal government should force the post office to deliver for free the ballots to the front doors of democracy--the local boards of elections . All non-elected county employees should be trained to work at a polling place for each election. This way we would not have to rely exclusively on an entirely new workforce who are forced to work incredibly long hours on election day. If we had county workers assisting poll workers, they could work 7.5 hour shifts and not be overwhelmed with the current 13 or 14 hour shifts that poll workers are stuck with right now. All Counties should have to open everyday for 30 days leading up to the election. This will make it easier for people to vote at their convenience. No one should be allowed to challenge a potential voter except a poll worker, but the public should be allowed to observe democracy in action. Right now, you must be with a political party to observe the voting process. This is wrong. A person should be allowed to sit in and watch people vote, and if there is problems be able to communicate with someone to avoid a person’s ballot being spoiled. I created a ruckus in the 2006 election, because one of my friends staying in a shelter was directed to the wrong precinct. I knew that if I let her vote in the wrong precinct her vote would never count, but there was nothing in place to let me communicate my concerns to a poll worker. Finally, since we seem to have accepted as a society a permanent class of people who will live without a home, we should have rules for homeless voting so that people will not feel groups are trying to pull a fast one when they drive homeless people to the Board of Elections.


Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

How About a Bailout for Homeless People?

Financial Bailout of the Banks

Wow, what a week. While we have been out registering and encouraging homeless people to vote this week, it seems as though our financial system crumbled. What are we going to do with all these “toxic assets” in our community? I have a great idea: how about ending homelessness in America, by placing homeless people into these places as soon as they are vacated in order to keep them from depreciating and transitioning former home owners into renters while these assets are in the hands of the US government? What is toxic to a banker is gold to a person living in a shelter. My big worry is that this happened so quickly that it will create a large number of unintended consequences which will hurt poor people.

My biggest concern is that banks will have no incentive to refinance these loans and it will accelerate the foreclosure crisis. I mean, a bank may get only 50 cents on the dollar from the federal government, but they may be spooked by this crisis to take a sure thing from the feds rather than hope that the current homeowner will be able to pay a restructured loan. There will be a great deal of pressure to get rid of potentially bad assets from the balance sheet. I fear that some of these households may be able to pay at a lower interest rate, but will not have that opportunity in the rush to show an improved bottom line by banks.

The other concern is that once the property is owned by the federal government it is difficult or impossible for the municipal government to enforce local housing code violations. A property cannot be turned over to the municipality until it sits for six months. By that time, it has depreciated to the point that it is nearly worthless in the City of Cleveland. We need to press the Treasury and the federal government to keep homeowners in place and move those in need of housing into some of these vacant properties.

Posts by Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless staff and Board.