While it’s raining outside, the basement of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Atlanta’s West End is warm with Mardi Gras decorations and music.
People are getting lunch, having their feet washed and also registering to vote. The last day to register to vote in Georgia’s March primary is Monday, Feb. 24.
Michael Pennyman, a canvasser with the community advocacy group Georgia Stand-Up, has his small table set up in the back corner of the room, where he helps one visitor fill out the registration form.
Most of the people in this church basement are homeless. But even around the city, Pennyman typically knows when he’s registering someone with unstable housing.
He says it comes up during the application. The state requires basic personal information, like a name, date of birth and a residential address.
“They’ll tell you, ‘I don’t have an address. I’m homeless,’” Pennyman said.
The address question can be tricky for both applicants and homeless service providers.
Recently, DeKalb County revoked voter registrations because they were tied to temporary housing — although the county then faced pushback from the Georgia ACLU.
Asked whether people really can register when they don’t have permanent addresses, Fulton County’s registration chief Ralph Jones responded very clearly though.
“Yes, you can register to vote. You just have to tell me where you lay your head,” Jones said.
He said that could be a homeless shelter or even a park bench. If it’s hard to determine the addresses of where applicants are staying, they can simply point to the location on a map.
But then in that case, they do have to provide something else on the next line of the form.
“The question for me mostly is that we would need a mailing address where we can get in contact with you,” Jones said.
If the mail comes back undelivered, the county will have to begin the process of removing the voter registration.
People who are homeless are especially vulnerable to having their voting status canceled. A previous analysis by WABE and APM Reports found that the state purged nearly 900 voters who were homeless in 2017.
So identifying addresses where applicants can receive mail is important, Jones said.
That may seem to create yet another hurdle for people who are homeless and may not be able to afford a post office box. But in Atlanta, there are a few places that will receive mail for free on their behalf.
Pennyman said he will direct potential voters to those places if they can’t provide addresses to put on the forms.
At the West End church, Pennyman just finished registering a man named Larry Roberts.
A lifelong Atlanta resident, Roberts remembers the first vote he cast for former President Jimmy Carter. He said he’s been paying a lot of attention to the Democratic presidential race this year.
“I’ve been watching everything,” Roberts said. “I just form my own opinion.”
He said he plans to voice his opinion in Georgia’s primary on March 24.