Pine Street Inn helps homeless register to vote

Erica Harris registered to vote for the first time ever at the Pine Street Inn’s voter registration forum on Wednesday.
Erica Harris registered to vote for the first time ever at the Pine Street Inn’s voter registration forum on Wednesday.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Inside a South End shelter where some turn as a last resort, women by the dozens exercised their right Wednesday to pick presidents and governors, send representatives to Congress, and decide policy questions at the ballot box.

“You can all vote,” Lyndia Downie, president of Pine Street Inn, told the gathering at the women’s shelter. “Sometimes I hear from some of our guests, ‘Gee. I can’t vote because I’m homeless.’ Not true.”

The event was among several the Pine Street Inn conducted Tuesday and Wednesday at shelters in the South End and Jamaica Plain to register people to vote.

The message was simple: If you’re 18 years old and a US citizen, you can vote in Massachusetts. A shelter address is accepted on the voter registration form, Downie said.


Then, she turned the podium over to City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, who defeated 10-term US Representative Michael Capuano in last month’s Democratic primary, by promising to represent those who feel forgotten by people in power.

Pressley told the crowd she was no stranger to pain, telling her personal story as she implored the women to participate in the democratic process.

“There are people who make assumptions about who has a right to have a seat at the table of democracy. You have earned your right by your lived experience,” said Pressley, who is poised to be the first woman of color from Massachusetts to serve in the US House.

She used her campaign refrain, “people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power,” and referenced a famous quote from Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American to run for president: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

After sharing details about being raised by a single mother and surviving sexual assault, Pressley asked the crowd to raise their hand if they could relate. Hands flew into the air.


But Pressley said her mother was adamant that “on Election Day, we were powerful.”

“She took me with her to vote in every election,” she said. “I remember standing just a little bit taller when she would pull that curtain and I would stand at her waist when she would go to pull that lever. You are powerful and it is so important that you participate.”

The state doesn’t track how many homeless residents are registered to vote, but the registration process is simple, said Debra O’Malley, spokeswoman for Secretary of State William F. Galvin.

A homeless voter can register using the address for “where they most often sleep at night,” she said.

“Homeless voters have the right to vote. We encourage them to do so,” O’Malley said.

Next Wednesday is the deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 6 election, which includes races for governor and US Senate as well as three statewide ballot questions.

By Wednesday evening, the Pine Street Inn had registered about 70 people to, a spokeswoman said. The shelter will provide rides to the polls on Election Day, Downie said.

She said many homeless people are consumed by their efforts to find permanent shelter, but voting is an important part of putting their lives back together.

“As we try and help you get out of shelter, it’s part of being a good citizen,” Downie said. “We want you to get out there and vote here, but once you move out of here, we want you to pay attention to voting.”


Brenda Ann King, 69, said she hopes to vote in the upcoming election in the precinct for her new apartment. She said she plans to move out of Pine Street Inn on Thursday.

“I’m ready to get on with my life and do all these good things that need to be done,” she said.

King said Pressley's remarks impressed her.

“I truly believe in my heart and in my brain, she’s going to do wonderful things for Boston,” King said. “She was saying everything from her heart and how she feels.”

Erica Harris, 51, who has been going to Pine Street Inn for about a decade, said being homeless has kept her away from the polls.

She said she registered to vote, but the most pressing issue in her life won’t be on the ballot.

“I know I want to get out of here,” she said.

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com.