A Photo ID: One of the Largest Barriers to Escaping Homelessness

photo credit: Holly Clarke

photo credit: Holly Clarke

Imagine if you became homeless tomorrow - where would you keep all of your important documents? Wallet, passport, birth certificate, social security card all on your person, at all times. This means there’s a much higher risk of losing all of these items at once and unfortunately theft is often the cause.

Something as simple as a state issued photo identification card can be the number one barrier to someone getting access to services - including access to temporary shelters, affordable housing, government benefits like food stamp programs, hospital care, job search, and even interaction with the police. Without access to services, escaping homelessness becomes even more of an uphill battle.

According to the National Law on Homelessness and Poverty, of people experiencing homelessness in a given month who didn’t have an ID: 51% were denied Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, 53% were denied food stamps, 54% were denied access to shelters or housing services, and 45% were denied access to Medicaid or medical services.

After the events of 9/11 in the U.S., the process of getting a state issued ID is a much more onerous. Many laws were enacted to make it much more difficult to get a license, and 26 states require proof of address for an ID - something impossible for homeless individuals.  

There are two main barriers for a homeless individual to get a new ID: time and money.

The Waiting Game

For anyone, it’s a lengthy process to get new copies and it can take weeks. For someone living below the poverty line, waiting means sleeping on the street instead of a in shelter. Or that a low-income family isn’t receiving their food stamp benefits. Often these documents (birth certificate, social security card) are necessary to start the ID process. In some states the ID itself is required to get the birth certificate, so if missing both an individual can be totally out of luck.

“I could use a Hand Up to order a certified copy of my birth certificate! Having this important piece of documentation will help me obtain my state ID which in turn will help me access more resources through other community agencies.  Four years ago, I lost my job and subsequently my home. Before becoming homeless, I received family support, but when they passed away, I found myself on the streets.” -Maurice

Small but impossible fees  

Average fees across the U.S. to replace an ID is $28. Reduced fees for low income individuals averages $8 - $12, though you’d have to already be in the current system of care to show you are eligible for that reduced fee. The choice for someone that is homeless becomes either paying for the ID or paying for essential needs - if you have income at all. One specific challenge for local service providers is they generally do not have program budgets for IDs. On HandUp we often see people fundraising for document or ID fees.

“I used to have my own apartment, but I couldn't afford it after I lost my job. On September 3, 2015 I had to move into a shelter. My most immediate need is a birth certificate which will allow me to apply for apartments” -Bernadette

Lowering the barrier

There are states and local organizations working to eliminate this barrier for our neighbors in need. California now offers free photo ID replacements to homeless individuals, and for those born in the state, a free certified birth certificate.

Local San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect event brings together all the right resources for homeless individuals to get a photo ID onsite at their quarterly events. These types of programs eliminate the barriers of time and money to help folks get back on track to move forward.

“Thank you everyone for the support so far. Just wanted to update everyone on my current situation. My family and I found housing, we are very grateful! This HandUp goal will help us even further because our new home is a little ways out of town. By getting my drivers license, it will really help us to get into town easier and be near our support system, employment, and daycare.”-Moorgun

What can we do as citizens? Donate to programs that support access to IDs or give directly on HandUp. While it’s a seemingly small donation, it makes a huge impact in someone’s life.

Are you a human service agency that could benefit from having a photo identification fund for your clients? Learn more about HandUp Campaigns to meet your fundraising needs.