Sunday, October 5, 2008

Mission reaches out to homeless voters


October 5, 2008

Stricken with terminal cancer and brought low by life, Ken Marshall remains determined to exercise his right to have a say in the future of his country.

"From the day you turn 18 to the day you die, it's your obligation to vote," the 75-year-old says in a voice marred by sickness.

For the past year, Marshall has been living in the palliative care unit at the Ottawa Mission.

As politicians churn out promises to win votes, Marshall has been weighing his next vote on the issues that are close to his heart.

More federal funding is needed for affordable housing and health care, he says. Financial support is also needed for shelters and hospices like the one run by the Mission, places that feel like "home," he adds.

The voices of the homeless and poor are often forgotten by the political powers during election campaigns. In the past, it was extremely difficult for homeless people to vote.

"There were a lot of the guys who did not have identification and that automatically removed them from having an opportunity to vote," says Jennifer Crawford, assistant manager of client services at the Mission.

Elections Canada has made a concerted effort since 2000 to give the homeless the chance to vote, says James Hale, a spokesman for the federal agency.

"We started working closely with shelters and agencies that deal with the homeless to try to make sure they were brought into being able to vote," he says.

Since the homeless don't usually carry much, or any, government-issued identification, Elections Canada had to find other ways for them to cast a vote.

The result was allowing agency workers to sign a letter attesting to the would-be voter's identity.

Returning officers for Elections Canada are able to assign a community resource outreach worker to a riding that has a significant homeless population.

The ridings of Ottawa Centre and Ottawa-Vanier each have such a worker who helps the homeless get set up to vote, says Hale.

The number of clients at the Mission who vote has grown in the years following the start of Elections Canada's outreach initiatives, says Crawford.

"It also has to do with Elections Canada taking the time to educate shelter staff on it so that we know what we can let them know, because we are the ones that see them every day," she says.

The issues concerning the homeless and poor will be thrust into the spotlight tomorrow during a debate hosted by the National Anti-Poverty Organization at the Dominion-Chalmers United Church at 7 p.m.

It will be preceded by speeches at the anti-poverty monument outside City Hall.