Myron Barnum's official residence doesn't look like much. "I live right about there," he says, pointing. It's a waist-high section of concrete wall, ornamented this evening by a row of plastic go-cups and occupied by a few seated people -- all homeless men and women.
Barnum spends much of his days and most of his nights here in this part of Jackson Square's pedestrian plaza. So it's home in a very practical sense. It's now also his home officially, according to his Louisiana voter-registration form.
In many cities, homeless people like Barnum routinely register to vote by mapping out the location of their "home," whether it be park bench, cardboard box or doorway. Not in New Orleans. That's because Louisiana is one of two states (Virginia is the other) that doesn't allow homeless people to vote without a specific street address.
In early October, it seemed as though Barnum had leapt that hurdle to become the first local homeless man to successfully register with what is known in voter lingo as an "non-traditional address" -- namely, his spot on the street. Last week, Barnum discovered that his triumph was incomplete. A Gambit Weekly public-records request revealed that the Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters had not registered Barnum according to the map he'd drawn, which would have allowed him to vote in the French Quarter -- in Ward 5, Precinct 1. Instead, he had been placed in a different area -- Ward 2, Precinct 4 -- at the street address for the Multi-Service Center, a daytime drop-in center for the homeless.
And so last week, Martha Kegel, a staff attorney at the New Orleans Legal Aid Corp. (NOLAC), found herself in discussions with Louisiana Assistant Attorney General Angie Rogers LaPlace. Kegel represents homeless people in civil matters and is a co-counsel in Barnum's case, along with Charles Delbaum from her office and Judson Mitchell from the Loyola University Law Clinic.
Kegel's discussion with LaPlace concerned two issues, she says. "We're asking them to correct his registration, which is clearly erroneous. But most importantly, we're asking that they change the policy of not allowing unsheltered homeless people to vote."
LaPlace would not comment for this story because it could involve litigation. For her part, Kegel says that it's distressing that her services were even required. "I think it's a shame that a homeless person needs to find a lawyer in order to register to vote," she says.
In early October, as Hurricane Lili was gathering steam in the Gulf, Kegel and Delbaum were putting the finishing touches on the voting-rights lawsuit that they were preparing to file on behalf of Myron Barnum.
"On September 16, 2002," reads the prepared lawsuit, "Mr. Barnum went to the City Hall office of the Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters with the intention of registering to vote in the November 5, 2002 federal and state elections. ... Mr. Barnum attempted to fill out the voter-registration card he was given. He was told that because he is homeless and does not live at a shelter, he would not be allowed to vote." According to the prepared filing, Barnum was told that he would not be allowed to vote without a numbered street address.
The suit alleges that the defendants -- Commissioner of Elections and Registration Suzanne Haik Terrell and Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Louis Keller -- "have refused to permit Myron Barnum to vote solely because he is a homeless individual without a traditional residence." This, according to the filing, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
About a week prior to the Oct. 7 voter-registration deadline, Delbaum, following federal-court guidelines, called the Louisiana Department of Elections and Registration to notify them of the pending lawsuit. Suddenly, the lawsuit wasn't necessary. "Their attorney got back to us and said that they were willing to allow Myron to register to vote," says Kegel.
For Barnum, the outcome was mixed. "I won and I lost," he says. He did feel a sense of victory, he says, when he submitted his voter-registration form with his Jackson Square "home" indicated on the form's standard map. On the other hand, Barnum explains, the next homeless person who tries to register with an untraditional address could easily be rejected, because the old voting laws are still in place. "They used a quick fix to a big problem," he says.
With his close-cropped hair, fresh shave, loafers and sweater vest, Barnum looks more like a college professor than a homeless person. He was born, he says, in 1957 in Chicago, "at Michael Reese Hospital, 3900 South Ellis." He graduated from "Mount Carmel High School, 6410 Dante," and then received a degree in business administration "from Roosevelt University, 610 South Michigan."
After college, Barnum worked a variety of jobs, often in the hospital or pharmacy fields. At one point, he read in the newspaper that the Veteran's Administration hospital needed IV technicians to prepare chemotherapy drugs. "I got the job," he says with a grin. "I read a book about it first. We're strange people -- bipolar people." He was first diagnosed, he says, in 1985.
Barnum says he had never been homeless before this summer in New Orleans. He also says he had never been arrested. Then on Labor Day, Barnum was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing while walking through a parking lot near the Jackson Brewery with two other homeless men. "I was with the 'wrong' people -- Tiger and Pops," he says. The cop said, 'What are you doing with them?' I said, 'I can't be with people?'" He was soon handcuffed and taken to Orleans Parish Prison. The charges were dropped four days later.
It's been a difficult summer for Barnum. Right now, he's in a stage of his disorder called "rapid cycling." He's not currently taking medication -- "I just ride it out,' he says -- because lithium made him feel more crazy and a combination of new prescription drugs that had helped him in another city is not available to him through Charity Hospital.
When Barnum is "extremely manic," he travels. "I can hear the world calling me and I get up and go somewhere," he explains. Which is why, during the last few decades, Barnum has lived in more than 40 states -- and has voted in about 20 of those. "Of course," he adds, "before this, I always had an address."
As Barnum was trying to register, several people, including one in City Hall, he says, told him that he should just "find" a street address to use. "What a novel idea," says Barnum wryly. "A homeless person with an address."
"If they sleep on top of a heat grate, homeless people here in D.C. are allowed to vote," says Michael Stoops. Stoops is director of community organizing for the D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless, which sponsors a voting-rights campaign called "You Don't Need a Home to Vote."
Since its inception in 1992, the campaign has convinced 10 states to pass laws confirming homeless people's unequivocal right to vote. Thirteen states already had such laws in place. Two dozen more states have verbally concurred. In the early 1990s, a similar bill was introduced in Louisiana by then-Senator Marc Morial. It did not pass.
"I think that some legislators worry about fraud," says Stoops, explaining why elected officials might oppose such a bill. "I think that they also worry about homeless people being used a political pawns." Stoops notes that the Gore campaign in 2000 was criticized because one of their donors was giving homeless people in Milwaukee a pack of cigarettes if they registered.
Stoops thinks that those worries are largely unfounded. The courts have agreed. A series of decisions in the last few decades have supported the right of homeless people to register to vote where they live, even if it's a non-traditional address.
In Stoops' opinion, the voting barriers faced by the today's homeless in Louisiana follow in the same ignominious tradition as poll taxes and literacy tests. "Homeless people are today's disenfranchised population group," he contends. "If you don't have a normal domicile, you aren't eligible to vote."
The Louisiana Legislature has a long history of allowing questionable voter registration practices. There are, of course, the historical injustices, like the circa-1960s Louisiana "interpretation test," which required a potential voter to interpret a section of the state or federal constitution to the voting registrar, who had ultimate discretion as to whether the interpretation was satisfactory.
Just five years ago, the ACLU Louisiana opposed a bill that would have denied the right to vote, in certain elections, to people who didn't own property.
Only one opinion has been written in Louisiana about the voting rights of homeless people. In 1999, Louisiana Attorney General Richard Ieyoub wrote a four-page opinion about whether a residence at a park or under the Mississippi River Bridge would "satisfy Louisiana's residency requirements for the purposes of voter registration." In Ieyoub's view, it did not.
Homeless advocates have long felt that this opinion needed revisiting. In one perplexing section, the opinion questions "whether a residence at a park or under a bridge is legal, as our Criminal Code provides a crime of vagrancy when persons loaf the streets or loiter public places without lawful business or reason to be present." The Louisiana vagrancy statute cited in support of this argument had been declared unconstitutional back in 1970.
Some portions of Ieyoub's opinion helped homeless people by clarifying crucial issues. For instance, he wrote that "a homeless individual may use a shelter as his residence for the purpose of registering to vote." Registered-voter rolls obtained by Gambit Weekly show that more than 1,000 homeless people are currently registered at the street addresses of local shelters.
But the so-called "unsheltered" -- the people on the streets -- are clearly denied the vote in this state. Even Louisiana's voter-registration application reflects that denial. Kegel picks up a uniform voter-registration application, created by the 1993 National Voter Registration Act for use in every state. Like every other state that requires voter registration, Louisiana uses a version of that form today. Except in Louisiana, one key phrase is missing.
The federal version of the application reads: "If you live in a rural area but do not have a street number, or if you have no address, please show on the map where you live." On the Louisiana version, the clause "or if you have no address," is omitted.
Barnum is standing firm until this form and the pertinent voting laws are changed. Even if the state of Louisiana refuses him, he says, it will have to confront his situation again and again. "Hundreds of times," he predicts. That's because Barnum plans to form a coalition of homeless people in New Orleans. Some of the coalition's first efforts will focus on wrongful arrests and on voter registration, with an emphasis on people without addresses.
"It's everybody's right to vote," notes Barnum. And it's an especially precious right for him and other homeless people, he says. "Because if I can't vote and let anyone know how I feel, they will really never hear me."
He takes a scan around at his surroundings. "Look," he says, gesturing at his cohorts in their hand-me-down clothes. Barnum has no political clout, he says. No wealth. He doesn't have much more than the clothes he's wearing and the contents of his black canvas briefcase.
But he does have a vote. "I think that politicians feel the power of the vote more than anything else," he says. "Because that's how they get their paycheck."