For our December 2018 #Displaced issue, we sat down with friend and community organizer Candice Fortin to discuss her political involvement in amplifying the voices of minorities and underprivileged groups.
Candice, can you tell us how this journey started and how you found yourself helping the homeless register to vote?
2016 was interesting... That was the time I started organizing and began the work in a volunteer capacity. I was a super-volunteer for Bernie. I started doing community engagement events because I had a background as a producer and event producer. And that was cool but there was this piece where 300 people would show up but then there’s nothing for them to do beyond donating $10. And I felt like there was a lot more we could be doing beyond just show up to concert. So I started to learn to knock doors first with Working Families Party and I caught onto that pretty quickly. We started in New Hampshire.
You know, whenever you start organizing – and you’re organizing voters – a lot of your personal story starts to come out. There starts to come out a lot of questions on why you’re doing it and your connections with people.
What were some of the things that came out for you?
For me, I had an aunt who passed away at a homeless shelter in 2002. We did not find out about that in 2016 when we were trying to go through her death records. She was an immigrant. There was no one to advocate for her and her name was misspelled or something. We missed the opportunity by 14 years.. That was also around the time that Giuliani was threatening and also imprisoning homeless people that were on the streets. So it didn’t leave a lot of options for people to survive.
My father was homeless: he’s a vietnam vet and immigrant. He was homeless for about 5 years. Coming onto depression, being 60 and not being able to figure out how he’s supposed to live and survive.
Did you know about your dad’s situation?
I did not find out until after he passed last year. I actually found out by a case worker at the VA. I went over there to retrieve his things and retrieve his dog. She said he was homeless for about 5 years and she was the one who was able to recruit him from the homeless shelter. It’s hard to know what happened… He was living out of his car. I don’t know what happened a lot of that time period because it was hard for him to get in touch with anybody.
When you start doing this kind of work, you start talking with millenials and hype kids - which is one thing - but then you start seeing these big gaps of people who are not being spoken to. The project - not sure I would even qualify it as a project, it was more of an impulse. I had volunteers I knew working on Bernie stuff and I said I think we’re missing a demographic of people that Bernie keeps talking about, yet we’re not speaking to them. So we started reaching out to homeless shelter and to be honest we had a lot of push back. A lot of shelters said: it’s not legal or the clients wouldn’t be interested or too much red tape to go through.
So how did you work around that?
What we did instead is put tables in front of the shelters - they couldn’t fight that. We had food - which attracted a lot of people from the shelter - and had voter registration forms. And a lot of people wanted to come out and talk. A lot of people it was their first time being approached about voting or the election. There’s someone I met who worked at John Kerry’s campaign. Some also couldn’t vote because of past felonies.
The biggest problem I saw - which is a problem our country is facing - is being held in the homeless shelter. So there were refugee families that were hiding in the shelter, veterans, people who are mentally ill, families who got evicted (entire families), people who were disabled (some from work accidents). Most of them were black and latino.
You can see the displacement is about a system that doesn’t really uphold you, if something happens in your life. If you are mentally ill, or you’re having a rough month, if you get fired and lose your job then the system doesn’t support you or have sympathy for that. They only support the working person (whatever that means). People who just got out of jail and have no money and no one to go and no one to talk to.
How did they react to the prospect of voting?
But they were really excited to be approached. A lot of them didn’t know they could use their shelter as an address. Some of them were really educated about the issues. A lot of them know about the system because they’ve been impacted by it so directly, and know how difficult it is to reclaim your life after an accident or coming out of jail or having a mental breakdown.
It was really great to do that. We did it in a few shelters around New York. We actually were non-partisan, we just wanted people to be engaged.
What happened after that?
I heard a couple months later about Proposition HHH in Los Angeles. That proposition was designed to give 10,000 new homes to the homeless. The money would come from taxes that would be given to homeowners within a certain bracket of housing cost or income (so not working/ middle class families that are putting what they can to buy a home).
I was really into that bill. And there was a lot of movement happening to get the homeless involved in that process. We partnered with the mayor’s office, Eric Garcetti, to have resource fairs where homeless citizens could come and not only register but also gets IDs, get food, get a haircut, get their eyebrows waxed, toys for their kids, foods for their dog… Just so it wasn’t so transactional but also recognizing that they had layers to go through before they could vote.
Because when we tried to go out there with a clean slate in Skid Row, that didn’t go so well. It’s about meeting people where they are. Keeping in mind it’s not the same as knocking on someone’s home that’s comfortable and doesn’t have to worry about where their next paycheck is coming from.
We did find a lot of empowerment through that. There started to be phonebanks in shelters where citizens could participate in the process and get people to advocate. They did have rallies around that (that I didn’t organize). And we wound up winning, which was great. But a lot of it was driven by the people. We had the people most impacted by it to say something.
Do you know the status on those 10,000 new homes for the homeless?
That’s the next part. The plan was for it to happen by 2020. I know there have been partnerships with USC and a couple other programs that do urban planning. Right now there’s definitely some issues with the expediency and if it’s actually going to happen with 2020. That’s where we are with that.
Do you think it’ll be boosted or is it related with the recent proposition that passed in San Francisco? Do you feel like there’s a movement in California right now to solve the homelessness issue?
Probably. It’s terrible in L.A and it’s terrible in San Francisco. The fact that there’s encampments is pretty loud. There’s an urgency. It’s almost impossible to survive like that in L.A
What do you think are some of the issues that are slowing down this process / not making it as efficient? Is it administrative red tape?
Yes I think it’s partly administrative. And you just have to have the right people in office who are willing to recognize the issue and deal with it. I think a lot of it is actually fairly simple. Utah actually started to take money that they used to spend on sending people to jail, they’re actually building homes for the homeless. I know in NY the cost is about $60,000 per prisoner. Where that money goes I have no idea, it’s definitely not going to the prison. There’s some conversations around that and why that money isn’t going to 6 people to go to state college, or to put them in a drug program, or therapy - whatever the issue is that go them there.
Right now we have folks that are benefitting from this obviously. And also companies like Victoria’s Secret and Whole Foods, they do employ prison-labor. But “employ” could be as much as 12 cents a day. So you have people who are benefitting from this so well, why would they ever try to help or have enough conscious to say “we don’t need to have quotas to arrest people.”
Until we get out of that framework where people feel like they constantly have to achieve that’s not really tangible. That they constantly have to have this financial goal or compete against each other or sell out to just survive, it’s going to really difficult. Because it does trickle down to your neighborhood landlord that says “I don’t have a choice but to raise your rent.”
So it seems like it’s a much deeper issue than just housing - it’s about changing the minds and the hearts of people?
Yes we put our money in the most ridiculous places sometimes and it doesn’t benefit anybody but certain people’s interest. So the more we can get people who hold those keys and make those budget decisions in the room who actually care, I think we’ll make a lot of change.
Are you still quite active now with the homeless registration?
It factors in the work I do but I wouldn’t say it’s a project that fully in existence. I do try to volunteer at shelter in whatever capacity. It hasn’t become a huge project but I think it should be and that other people can pick up that work, because it’s really easy to do. But I’ve had the opportunity with the candidates that I’ve worked with to get them involved in the process. We’ve worked with Returning Citizens and having them volunteer in shelters as well. But it hasn’t been an overarching project at this time.
I would encourage more people to do it, because it’s really not as hard as it seems.
What would you say is the first step, some good tips for people to get involved?
I would say: just try to call the shelter and see what the boundaries are. That’s what we did and yes we got a lot of bureaucratic red tape but at least we knew what we could or could not do. Create spaces that meet them halfway. I would not expect a homeless person to come to a registration event but if you provide food and alternative services that make their lives better, a little easier that day, that can mean volume. I would suggest partnering with soup kitchens and churches that do this kind of work or sanctuary spaces. Shelters may not be the best space but if you can create a space outside of that and adding in some education and voter registration, I think that’s the best thing to do.
I hate the word activism - I think it creates this kind of hierarchy or bubble where people don’t feel like they have to get involved. I prefer organizer because it’s more about getting people to do the same thing. I think it’s important. I don’t want to be the only person doing it. I want people to see that they can do it too.
I think the biggest thing is: I always courage people to give something a shot. If you want to help someone, you know just do it. A phone call can mean a lot.
Can you tell us a bit more about your current project?
I’m working with Rafael Espinal. He’s running for public advocate. He has brought the largest amount of money to lower income housing to East New York, which is a predominantly black area with the lowest income in New York. He’s done a lot to protect DYI spaces and artist spaces. He’s trying to preserve the New York culture that we feel identifies the city. Not giving way to new housing and new condo and new hotels. He’s into preserving the culture because the culture is part of our currency.
He has a bold and strong environmental platform. He wants all rooftops to be green in someway: urban farming or a solar panels - making it mandatory. Eliminating plastic straws. Finding ways to get rid of waste. We contribute to so much waste in NYC. Promoting electronic cars. Trying to minimize our carbon input and pollution rate.
He really believes to use marijuana tax money to facilitate bail programs, so those most impacted get their rights restored as well.
For more info on Candice's work, follow her on Instagram: @candicefortin