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Homeless have barriers and mixed reactions to voting

Randy Burghardt won't be voting in British Columbia's election on May 12.

He has bigger problems, such as where he'll be sleeping and how he'll stop people from stealing the treasures he pushes around in a grocery cart.

“No,” he stated, without a second's hesitation, when asked if he was going to vote.

“I live outside, so I don't have a clue what's going on. I don't know who's running for whatever.”

Standing on the corner of Main and Hastings, the centre of Vancouver's impoverished Downtown Eastside, the articulate 44-year-old, with a chest-length tangled, red beard, admits he'd like to vote but doesn't know the issues -- even the issue of homelessness.

Others who count themselves among the hundreds of homeless living on the streets of Vancouver say they're exciting about voting, including Joshua Newcomb, who lives at the Lookout Emergency Aid Shelter.

“I just had my 30th birthday, and I haven't voted before,” he said

Shelter staff have been encouraging residents to cast their ballot.

Al Mitchell, the emergency services manager at the Lookout, said voting can help improve their dignity.

“We use the fact that people have a right to vote as something to reinforce that you are not some kind of cast-off from society,” he said.

“You are an important part, they want your vote, get involved, making your vote count.”

Mitchell said many of the residents seem enthusiastic about voting, but there are some hurdles for people with “no fixed address,” who often have no identification.

“When you have your life in your pack sack or a green garbage bag and things happen, people get at your stuff while you're sleeping. ID is really hard to hold on to when you've got no home,” said Mitchell.

The homeless are eligible to vote in the provincial election as long as they're over 18 and have lived in the province for more than six months. A piece of government-issued photo ID is required, or two other pieces of ID with no photo.

Mitchell said once staff find out the person has no ID they take steps to help them get it.

Kenn Faris, manager of event communications with Elections BC, said a homeless voter can use the address of the shelter where they're staying and get a letter from a shelter worker to attest to their identity.

If a piece of photo ID isn't available, Elections BC will accept two pieces of other ID or a personal piece of mail that shows an address.

If all else fails, a family member, shelter staff or caretaker can go to the voting venue with the person and sign a document to vouch for them when they register to vote.

Elections BC staff have been visiting homeless shelters around the province to ensure that the homeless know they have the right to vote and what they need to do to cast their ballot.

Percy Bird, 52, has lived in a shelter off and on for years and said he usually votes in all elections, but is skeptical that his vote will change much.

“They're going to forget who you are and think themselves are more important than you,” he said of the politicians.

But that doesn't prevent him from casting a ballot.

“Just to put my two cents in. So I can complain,” he chuckled.

Homelessness is an increasingly prominent issue in British Columbia, and in Vancouver and Victoria in particular.

Last month, the province's auditor general released a scathing report, saying the government seemed to have no strategy to deal with a growing problem. John Doyle said the province's goals and objectives were so poorly defined that accountability is missing.

The Liberal government recently announced a new Homelessness Intervention Project will be responsible for co-ordinating social housing and support services, including health and income assistance for the chronically homeless in Vancouver, Surrey, Victoria, Kelowna and Prince George.

Experts say it's difficult to know how many homeless people are living on the streets in B.C., but a study by researchers at three universities concluded up to 4,000 people were homeless in the Greater Vancouver region alone in 2006.

And critics say that number has only grown.

Both the Liberal and New Democratic parties promise help.

The NDP platform says a New Democrat government would end the crisis in five years and set firm targets for social housing, including 2,400 units in the first year and another 1,200 units in each of the remaining four years.

New Democrats promise to increase income support for those with health, education, mental illness, and training barriers.

The party's poverty reduction plan would include raising the minimum wage and supporting job skills, and would link income assistance rates to inflation.

The Liberal platform points out what Gordon Campbell's Liberal government has already done, including spending $469 million on housing programs this year in the province -- four times more than it says was spent in 2001.

The government has purchased 45 single-room occupancy hotels and affordable housing buildings at a cost of $130 million and promised to invest $90 million in renovations.

“We will expand the new outreach programs that now operate in 48 communities to connect homeless people with safe housing and shelters, income assistance, employment counselling and medical services,” the Liberal platform stated.

But those promises won't help Elizabeth, who isn't sure where she'll be staying day to day.

“I'm in such distress. I need housing. I have a failing heart and I'm desperate,” she said as she sat in the lounge of the Lookout Shelter.

The elderly woman, who didn't want her last name used, said she left her last home because care takers needed to fumigate for bugs and she worried the chemicals would harm her already-weak heart and lungs.

Elizabeth said she would not be voting in the provincial election.

“I stopped voting because it was hopeless. Everybody talks, nobody takes action. All these billions on the (2010) Games and no housing. It's so wrong.”

Terri Theodore reports for The Canadian Press.

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