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Advocates for unhoused persons register voters and host candidate forums

Candidates for a city council seat met with people experiencing homelessness, who plan to vote in the Nov. 8 election

PORTLAND, Maine — It’s late October, and candidates are busy campaigning for votes.

Aqeel Mohialdeen and incumbent Pious Ali, both vying for the same at-large Portland City Council seat, met Monday at a Preble Street homelessness resource building in Portland to hear from the constituents who might be most impacted by their policies.

Jim Devine, having experienced homelessness himself, has been working with Homeless Voices for Justice for 22 years. He spends fall days walking through Portland, registering people to vote.

"Since the homeless community is, in my opinion, about the most vulnerable community in existence, having politicians that affect your life means you ought to have some say in who they are," Devine said.

HVJ's "You don't need a home to vote" campaign is part of a national effort. According to the organization, over the past 20 years, HVJ has organized more than 65 candidate forums in Maine for federal, state, and municipal candidates, and registered more than 2,500 voters experiencing homelessness, hunger, or incarceration. 

At the forum, residents asked the candidates for their thoughts on where to build new affordable housing construction, the cost of rent, and campsite policies.

Rick Lamere is a new volunteer with Homeless Voices for Justice. He also camps in Portland and said there are gaps in city policy about when he can camp and when he has to try to get into a shelter.

 Among his concerns, the city does not allow camping on public property unless shelters are full. Lamere said, to comply with the law, he must wait until 11 p.m. each night for the shelter to announce whether it is full. If it is, he must find a place to setup his tent in the dark and hope police officers don't wake him and ask him to pack up shortly after sunrise. If the shelter has space, he can stay inside for the night but must leave his tent and blanket behind. 

"I know it’s made my life incredibly hard, so I figured it’s a good opportunity to give back some feedback, so that we can hopefully try to close some of those gaps," Lamere said.

It was an hour-long discussion involving one of multiple races on Portland’s ballots this year. But the city's most vulnerable voter base is getting more informed and, if Devine and Lamere have their way, mobilized to act.

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