He got up from his bed in a doorway. He pushed his shopping cart filled with water bottles and three pairs of old shoes to a small office on Skid Row. There, Willie Ponder, 34, homeless and fresh out of jail, registered to vote.
"I just got out of jail for a crime I did about 10 months ago--attempt to burn property," he said. "I was slightly intoxicated."
Ponder is an American citizen--a Democrat--and he intends to exercise one of the attending rights on April 9 when voters in the 9th District replace the late Councilman Gilbert W. Lindsay.
Ponder is among hundreds of Skid Row residents who have registered to vote since Feb. 4, when Mike Neely and nine of his staff from the city's Homeless Outreach Project began a drive to give the poor a political voice.
For the first time in recent memory, campaign signs are going up along the sidewalks where crack addicts smoke. Four council hopefuls have accompanied Neely on his daily recruitment drive, shaking hands with street people and making campaign promises.
Robert Gay, Lindsay's former aide and a candidate to succeed him, last week finished a $500-a-plate fund-raiser at the Biltmore Hotel, then ate pancakes and fruit punch with about 200 newly registered homeless voters at the Homeless Outreach Project office.
"What all of that says is a very important part of the 9th council district has been recognized," said Neely, a former Skid Row resident. "A number of people who have ignored the problem of homelessness are beginning to take this seriously. Maybe now we can get some action."
Many of these would-be voters are drug-addicted and jobless. They live in cardboard boxes, list their place of residence as "the corner of 8th and Broadway" and their mailing address as "The Midnight Mission."
Now, an estimated 600 people on Skid Row--the same sorts of people that Lindsay once said should be bathed in the Los Angeles River and sent to desert work camps--have registered to vote. If Skid Row votes as a bloc, some analysts say, the homeless could help determine the outcome of the election.
There are about 58,000 registered voters in the 9th District, in which Skid Row sits. Fewer than 20%--11,600 people--are expected to turn out. Those votes will be divided among nine candidates, meaning a relatively small number of ballots could determine who wins or moves into a runoff.
"If you get them to be unanimous, which is very difficult, does it make a difference? Sure," said Los Angeles political consultant Joe Cerrell. "When the field is split so vastly, it doesn't take an awful lot to separate No. 1 from No. 2."
It is unknown how many of the 11,000 destitute people on Skid Row are registered. Workers at the Midnight Mission, where 396 homeless and other Skid Row residents are on the voting roster, say only about 2.5% cast ballots.
"When you are scrounging for meals and trying to find a place to get cleaned up, you can't think about voting," one homeless man said.
Richard Osler, 27, who registered as a Republican, said he will go to the polls April 9. "I'm an American and I want to participate," he said, sitting over a fire crackling in an old oil can. "Just because I'm homeless don't mean I don't want to participate."
Occasional protests have been lodged in recent years over the right of a street person to vote. A 1985 state court ruling--involving homeless people who listed a Santa Barbara fig tree as their home address--held that a person's "domicile" for the purpose of voting could be a park, a tree or a street corner, as long as one intended to return.
While many Skid Row outreach workers applaud the registration drive, they are skeptical that the homeless will show up Election Day. At least one San Francisco political analyst said street people are too unreliable ever to emerge as a political force.
"A campaign manager who is targeting the homeless for votes is not going to have the biggest bang for the buck," said Mark DiCamillo, managing director of the California Poll. "Homeless people are not big consumers of news. They are just tuned out. It's sad, but that's the way it is."
On Tuesday, Feb. 19, when residents of the new 1st District turned out to vote for a county supervisor, so did Ed Boyd.
He got up at 5:30 a.m., folded up his cardboard box of a house, picked up some aluminum cans in an alley and went to the Midnight Mission to vote for Art Torres.
Boyd, 59, has been homeless since 1986, and he says he has never missed an election.
"We have a big neighborhood down here and if all the homeless people voted it might make a big, big difference," he said. "People would really notice us."