The Invisibles: The cruel Catch-22 of being poor with no ID

Washington Post,  June 16, 2017

Patricia Brown couldn’t prove her identity. On a Saturday morning in May last year, she rushed into the basement of Washington’s Foundry United Methodist Church, frantic that she would miss its I.D. Ministry hours. She took deep breaths as she reached the bright-yellow room crowded with narrow tables, where people sat poring over papers. Without valid identification, she couldn’t get housing or work, her food stamps or medication. She sat in a metal chair beside me, wiping away sweat from her forehead. The volunteer across from us looked concerned as Brown reviewed an intake checklist: Social Security card? No. Birth certificate? No. ID? Expired. ...

Washington isn’t the only place where acquiring identification can be difficult. As of 2006, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, up to 11 percent of U.S. adults had no government-provided photo ID. Since then, federal requirements for IDs have grown tougher, contributing to a loop that can help keep people trapped in poverty. For poor Americans, IDs are a lifeline — a key to unlocking services and opportunities, from housing to jobs to education. And in states with strict voter ID laws, the lack of an ID can hinder voting. “This is a huge issue for people who are homeless and poor in general,” says Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Without an ID, basically you don’t exist.” ...

[T]he volunteer described what the District would require for an ID. First, a person like Brown who had no documents would need a physical exam and a signed medical record. (There was a free clinic in Adams Morgan.) The signed medical record would allow her to get a Social Security card, which would be mailed to her within two weeks. She would then have to take the card and a Foundry check for $23 to the District’s Vital Records office to get her birth certificate. Vital Records could issue it based on the card alone, but the office reserves the right for its staff to request more documents to establish identity. Without a valid photo ID, the office recommends three original documents, among them: census records, probation papers, voter registration and an employee ID. Once she had the Social Security card and birth certificate, then she could go to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV requires proof of residency. Utility bills, leases and mortgages count among the qualifying documents. Without one in her name, Brown would need her host to supply a document to the DMV, with a photocopy of a valid ID and a signed form allowing Brown to claim the address. Otherwise, Brown would have to visit one of a handful of approved nonprofits or the D.C. Department of Human Services to be certified as homeless. Only then could she get her ID, which costs $20, and which Foundry also covers.

By Patrick Marion Bradley

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