No home, no vote

Why homeless voters who defend democracy can’t participate.


Shannon Orneal knows who he wants to vote for. What Shannon doesn’t know is if he will be voting in November – and he definitely won’t be caucusing this weekend.

He hopes to have a home by November, but this Saturday, during the caucus, he will be homeless.

Despite being a Navy veteran and having strong political opinions, voting is a luxury Orneal can’t afford. He, and so many of Nevada’s homeless population, face many hurdles between them and the polls.

On any given night in the U.S. there are more than half a million people who are considered homeless. According to the Reno News and Review there was an estimated 869 homeless people in the Reno area as of January of 2013. Since then that number has increased. Gathering accurate data on these people is difficult considering their lack of a permanent residences and inefficient ways of keeping track of those who are considered homeless.

A myriad of reasons keep homeless people from voting. First, getting an ID can be tough. Orneal’s is expired, and says he would have renewed it long ago – if it were free.

“Nevada IDs didn’t used to expire, but they decided ‘Hey, we can make money off this.’ And now they do,” says Orneal.

Nevada DMV’s website shows that renewing an ID costs $22.25, as well as an additional $10 late fee if it’s been expired more than a month, a $4.25 fee for a change of address, and a $9.25 fee if any other information is changed. Late renewals must be made in person as well.

Nevada doesn’t have voter ID laws, but having a state-issued ID is still an important step to registering to vote. Registering online requires a valid Nevada driver’s license or state ID.

For Nevada’s homeless, registering traditionally with a paper registration form requires that the form be delivered to the County Registrar or the County Clerk, according to the State’s own website.

In May of last year, some Nevada lawmakers tried passing legislation like the controversial laws in Texas that require every voter to present official photo-ID at the polls, but were defeated. Laws like this would make voting impossible for anyone unable to obtain a valid, current, state-issued ID.

Orneal once drove nuclear submarines for the US Navy, served on a destroyer, and lived in Pearl Harbor after his service from 1992-96. He’ll be 42 this year, but his long, curly brown hair and defined features make him look much younger. This may seem extraordinary, but his present circumstances are not.

According to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report there are almost 50,000 homeless veterans which comprise roughly eight to nine percent of the homeless population.

Orneal says he became homeless after being kicked out of a room he was subletting after a roommate failed to pay rent. Losing the room kept him from getting to his job.

“It just snowballed,” he says.

The shores of the Truckee River on Reno’s east side are dotted with make-shift shelters, home to dozens of Reno’s homeless population. This is where Shannon Orneal lives, along with other veterans. At night, they build fires for cooking and warmth. Exercisers on bicycles whizz past on the bike trail that runs through the shantytown. A weathered American flag hangs from a tree on the river’s bank.

Looming above the scene is the massive GSR casino, which is directly across the river – a stone’s throw away. The Grand Sierra Resort, formerly the Reno Hilton, flaunts almost 2,000 rooms in its 27 stories. The building’s windows reflect a gold tint.

Orneal says the location is strategic. This spot along the river straddles the line between Reno and Sparks.

“Sparks doesn’t do anything for homeless people, but it’s pretty lenient about camping,” he says. “Reno won’t let you camp anywhere, but they provide services.”

“Reno wants to pretend we’re Spark’s problem. Sparks wants to pretend we’re Reno’s problem,” says Orneal. “Nobody wants to foot the bill.”

Other residents here face problems that more common. Being homeless can make these problems insurmountable.

For some, the cost of IDs isn’t everything. A couple, Kendalynn and Robert, had their IDs stolen. To get a new ID, Robert was told he would need his Social Security card and his birth certificate. They were both stolen, too. He can’t travel to California to request copies these documents.

Kendalynn, who isn’t a citizen, had her passport stolen. She holds out no hope of recovering any of her documentation.

For many others, like Orneal’s neighbor Rick Neibert, another veteran, felony convictions make them ineligible to vote.

Fortunately for those homeless who are eligible, Nevada law allows homeless people to list an outdoor location on their state-issued IDs. Some states do not. Unfortunately, a lack of a traditional address still creates problems for potential voters.

In Nevada, according to, a site for information about the rights of the homeless, if you live in a shelter you can consider that to be your residence for registering to vote. People who live on the street can register to vote but there is little information explaining how to go about this. There are few resources that help people go about finding a way to register to vote in Nevada. In places such as Tennessee and Colorado there are specifically stated laws helping and protecting the rights of homeless voters. Some stating things such as, “Those who cannot afford regular or adequate shelter may use a park, vacant lot, or homeless shelter as ’home base’ for registration purposes.”

A mailing address is required in Nevada in order to vote. This is in direct conflict to being allowed to register to vote while homeless. There is also no written policy in Nevada explaining how a homeless voter can vote or any law protecting their rights.

Orneal hopes that, by November, the Veteran Resource Center, a local private organization that helps provide services to homeless veterans, will be able to provide him with a home. He remains optimistic, and is very confident that the Veteran Resource Center will come through for him.

He says he’ll “absolutely” vote if he has a home. Orneal is hopeful for the Clinton campaign.

“I enjoyed the Clinton years,” he says. “I think she had a lot to do with his presidency, and I think he’ll have a lot to do with hers.”

Another of Orneal’s motivations is keeping Donald Trump out of office. He thinks he lacks the fundamental “people skills” needed for effective foreign relations.

“You can’t run this country like you run a business,” he says. “Besides, even if he did, he’d sell it to somebody else.”

Orneal also understands Nevada’s unique role in the political cycle. He says it brings the nation’s attention to Nevada and remembers it, if only for a few seconds.

There is a linear correlation between income in the U.S. and voter turnout. According to the U.S. Census Bureau only 59.7 percent of people in the U.S. voted in the 2008 election. The lower the income of the average person the less likely they were to vote. There was minimal data gathered showing people who had little to no income but only 41.3% of people that made less than $10,000 a year voted in 2008.

Orneal says that many homeless people he knows want nothing to do with the political process, regardless of their eligibility to vote.

Shannon Orneal does have a strong desire to participate. Unfortunately he knows that, for himself, not having a home this year means not having a vote.





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