How San Francisco's Homeless Plan to Vote in 2016
California is home to one-third of the country's chronically homeless population. We talked to some of these often-overlooked voters to find out what they think about this week's primary race.
All photos by author
The upcoming primary elections on Tuesday have brought the 2016 circus to California these past few weeks, with the two Democratic candidates parachuting in—or in Bernie Sanders's case, moving—to the state to gin up support in what will, mercifully, be the last major nominating contest of this already endless campaign cycle.
But for all of the emphasis Sanders and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, have put on expanding turnout in this year's presidential race, there is one group of voters that continues to be mostly overlooked by their campaigns: the homeless.
About 26 percent of the homeless people in the United States—and a full one-third of people classified as chronically homeless—are living in California, according to a 2015 report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Despite local and state efforts to combat the issue of chronic homelessness and housing insecurity, California cities have some of the highest rates of homelessness in the country, a problem that's been made worse by skyrocketing real estate prices and a lack of affordable housing.
In San Francisco, where the crisis in affordable housing continues to make national headlines, the homelessness issue offers a stark contrast to the booming tech wealth transforming the city's economic landscape. Young people earning six figure salaries stroll past people struggling to feed themselves, occasionally complaining about the "riff-raff" they encounter on their daily commutes. Sanders remarked on this during an unscheduled campaign stop in the Financial District last month, telling a crowd that he was surprised by just how many people he'd seen living on the streets.
"I've just been in San Francisco for a few hours now, but it really is stunning to see the number of people in this city who are sleeping out in the street," he said. "And it's not just San Francisco. Homelessness is a problem all over this country."
Despite the candidate's remarks, though, none of the three presidential contenders has made homelessness a major part of their campaign policy platforms—a lack of attention that may stem, at least in part, from the fact that homeless people generally don't vote.
But while information about politics can be hard to come for the homeless—and political activity is often overlooked in the constant struggle for day-to-day survival—homeless people I spoke to in San Francisco have surprisingly strong views about the upcoming election. Here's what some of them had to say.
Linda Jones, 58
Originally from Washington State, Jones said she has been homeless in San Francisco for about five years.
VICE: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Linda Jones: Let me tell you straight up, I'm a working girl. A sex worker, that's the best way to put it. I'm not ashamed of it. I do what I do. Jobs went down the tubes. I was a social worker. I have a B.S.W. [Bachelor's of social work], and worked on my master's [degree]. Anyway, yeah.
Who are you going to vote for?
Hillary! I always vote Democrat. I'm a Democrat. I think she's the best qualified, because of the previous jobs she's held. I don't think Sanders is qualified enough. Clinton has been a senator and secretary of state. She's written a lot of policy. She's a lawyer by trade. She's got all the qualifications. She knows the whole gamut, domestic and international.
Which candidate do you think will do the most to help the homeless?
Hillary. Democrats, one of their platforms has always been to help the homeless.
How do you feel about Donald Trump?
He's not qualified—period. I believe that Donald Trump is not morally correct. He's been married three times. He's just going to benefit the rich.
Do you think America is great?
Not now. America has lost its luster, because of bad leaders. I think it's affected me, my job status. I lost my job because of Republican budget cuts, when George W. [Bush] was president, in 2002.
Daniel Aldrich, 39
I met Aldrich in downtown San Francisco, where he was sitting with his belongings at a bus stop just a few blocks from Twitter's Market Street headquarters. Originally from Texas, Aldrich has been homeless for about half of his life, and now relies on California's state health insurance program to get the medication he needs to treat his HIV. He said he supports Sanders in the presidential race.
VICE: What is it about Sanders's message appeals to you?
Daniel Aldrich: Even though Sanders may have some different viewpoints than I do, he is trying to reach across the social Grand Canyon in this city. There is no middle class in this city, and there's no bridge in the social gap in this city. It's like we're moving toward a caste system. Sanders would be a representative for homeless people. We're a nation of exiles.
What are some of the problems that you face being homeless in San Francisco?
I spent all my money and my food stamps in [fast-food] establishments, and in return, sort of weird customer appreciation, they stop me at the door and tell me "you can't come in here." Walgreens, Safeway, Chevron, Subway, 7-11, McDonald's, CVS, and quite a few of those place meet me at the door, after eight years of spending money in their store[s]. If they understood the torture we go through, they might not treat us that way.
Me and some of my friends were hanging out on the sidewalk when this cop came up to us and said, "I got a call saying you guys were cookin' up [using heroin] over here." Now the cop said, "I don't care what you do here, I'm just sick of getting these calls." But that's what housies do, man—that's what I call people who live in houses, the ones who don't care about the homeless.
How do you think Sanders could help address those problems?
To start, maybe Sanders could start educating people about the root causes of homelessness, and what homeless life is like. I don't think housies have the slightest idea.
Christine Saulsbury, 51
Saulsbury, a San Francisco native, is a home health aide, but says she has not worked, and has been homeless since her family was evicted from a public housing project. She says she'll be voting for Clinton in Tuesday's primary.
VICE: What about Hillary Clinton appeals to you?
Christine Saulsbury: She's been in politics for some time, and I believe that she helped her husband as he was president. She was his backbone. I really haven't heard her speak, but she brings equal opportunity and you know, trying to do the right thing for the people. Listening to the people. I haven't heard too much about Sanders.
Clinton should deserve a chance. She should deserve a chance to do what she needs to do to run the country.
Megan Sue Belafonte, 60
Belafonte became homeless for the first time six months ago, after losing her home to foreclosure. She also plans to vote for Clinton in Tuesday's California primary.
VICE: What have the past few months been like, living on the streets?
I was married for twenty-four years. I had a very loving husband, but he passed away a year ago. Here I am, a sixty-year-old woman with a car and no money. I ended up losing my car. I was raped. I've had my purse stolen three times.
How do you think Clinton might help homeless people?
I'm all the way Hillary for the simple reason [that] Bill was president for eight years, but anybody who knows about human nature, our human characteristics [knows that as] the first lady, [she] was involved. She's been a senator, and she's been secretary of state.
We [are] just [getting] done with eight years of Obama. We had the first black president. Now we need the first woman. We're not just things that look pretty. We do have a brain. Since before time, women have been running a household. If you can run a household, raising children, then you can run a country.
Do you think America is great?
I think it is, but what we've done is we've lost the American value. We took a little piece of paper—money—and put it over human life, over our country.
Allier Rodriguez, 39
Rodriguez, who is also from San Francisco, has been homeless for three years. Though he works as a janitor, he doesn't make enough income to afford housing, and lives in a shelter in the city. He said he had been a Clinton supporter, but switched his allegiance to Sanders after speaking with a canvasser for the Vermont senator's campaign.
VICE: What made you switch your support to Sanders?
Allier Rodriguez: I think Sanders will be more for the low-income [people] than Hillary. Hillary seems more mainstream, meaning that if [the] mainstream doesn't think it's cool to help the homeless, then that's what she'll side with. Sanders seems more like, "Wait, hold on, we have an issue here."
Have you been paying attention to the presidential race?
I'm a janitor during the day—when I catch news, I catch it. But otherwise, I try to look something up it's on the internet to see if it is true.
Do you think America is great?
Yes. You still have opportunity, man, to be rich, to be poor, to be whatever. I want to be successful for my kids. I think Sanders would make my life easier.
Galandrahon Shambhala, 29
I met Shambhala on Market Street, as he was poised to leave San Francisco and return to New York City, where he was born. He said he isn't supporting any candidate in the 2016 election.
VICE: How do you feel about the presidential candidates this year?
Galandrahon Shambhala: Which slave master do you want? Trump, Clinton, Sanders— it's the same thing. You can't vote for anyone to bring you the salvation you want. When someone tells you that your salvation is paying rent on the earth you were born on, that's the beginning of plantation thinking.
How can someone charge you for earth, or water? Sanders, what's he going to do? He's going to say "Stop paying rent"? The bottom of the line is that you are not an American at all. You're an employee. You're not governed by natural law—you're part of a plantation, no matter who you are.
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