EAST HARLEM – Cecelia Grant, a retired public school teacher, has been living on the street since June. On Tuesday, she voted for the first time today in 20 years. “Being a registered voter means I’m a part of ‘We the People,’” she mused. “Any time anything gets done, it’s because of We the People.”
Grant is an organizer and activist with the East Harlem-based housing nonprofit, Picture the Homeless, the volunteer members of which are mostly people who are either currently or formerly homeless. Her first experience back at the polls was disheartening: A poll worker told her that all her votes had to be cast for the same party. A Jill Stein supporter, Grant was happy to vote for Green Party candidates up and down the ballot—except, there was one Democratic judge she had wanted to vote for. “I went in all enthusiastic,” she told Jezebel. “Now I feel cheated out of a vote.”
Unlike Grant, PTH member Maria Walles has voted in almost every election for which she has been eligible. “You can talk the talk,” she said, “but if you’re not at the polls, I don’t know what to tell you.” She took a pragmatic approach to voting in this election: “One is a jackass,” Walles said. “The other I can deal with.”
Speaking with Jezebel at Picture the Homeless’ offices on Tuesday, the pair reflected on how things have changed in the past two decades—Walles likes the new, more electronic voting system that New York City has, but Grant doesn’t trust it. “There could be ten people who get their blood pressure taken and with me it says I have no pulse,” she joked. “That’s me with technology.” She feels disconnected from the voting process—and not just because she’s not pulling a lever anymore.
It’s no easy thing to vote, as a homeless person: For one thing, you need a mailing address, and even if you are one of the 36,654 adults in the shelter system (as of Sunday night), there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever actually receive your mail. What’s more, many homeless people, like Grant, avoid shelters because they are too dangerous. “I’m too traumatized to even go into a shelter,” she said. “The last time I was in, the rats were running past me out the door.”
Grant ascribes her current circumstance, at least in part, to the Clintons. Bill Clinton, after he left the White House, took an office at 55 West 125th Street in 2001, which, according to the New York Times, “seemed to put a presidential stamp of approval on the neighborhood’s revival.” Last year, the Community Service Society reported that residential rents in Central Harlem had risen 90 percent since 2002, compared to a citywide increase of 32 percent.
“Homelessness rose when the Clintons came to New York,” Grant said, noting too that none of the two major party’s presidential candidates mentioned homelessness in any of the debates. “The homeless epidemic is going to continue unless we build more housing,” Walles said.
“The government doesn’t change things,” Grant declared. “The people change things. Kennedy and Johnson didn’t do anything because they wanted to—it was the people. The people got so heated, and they didn’t want that. Only when we the people do what we did then—and maybe lose some lives—things will change.”