Without ID, many homeless are unable to get help or into shelters

Without ID, many homeless are unable to get help or into shelters
Published: Jul. 18, 2014 at 10:12 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 19, 2014 at 12:39 AM HST
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For many homeless, a major challenge to getting off the streets is not having an ID. Without one, most can't get the help they need.

"It's often you can't get into shelter. You can't get any kind of government benefits -- so any kind of general assistance, medical coverage, food stamps, social security disability benefits -- you have to usually prove that you're a citizen or a legal permanent resident in order to get services," explained Janet Kelly, a senior attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii who specializes in helping the homeless.

There are a lot of reasons the homeless don't have ID's. Some are lost or stolen, others are seized when crews enforce city ordinances. Concerns have also been raised that ID's are being thrown out when a homeless person goes to jail, but officials with the Department of Public Safety say its policy has always been to hold on to identification and return it when an individual is released.

"What can you do if you don't have an ID? Just think about all the stuff you wouldn't be able to do. You can't cash a check. You can't get a bank account. You can't get mail," described Joy Rucker, the Director for Community Services at Waikiki Health.

Officials says many shelters require ID so they can do background checks. They say the policy is meant to keep people safe, not keep people out.

"We have to check for violent criminal history, sexual predators -- so that's why we require an ID," explained Rucker.

Waikiki Health is one of the outreach providers that helps pay to get people birth certificates so they can replace their ID's, but it's no easy task.

"The system has created so many obstacles for people -- so it's not just their own problems, we've created a system that keeps the barriers up for people. It's not an easy system to access," Rucker said. "If people don't have a place to live and all their stuff organized -- it's a nightmare. It's just a nightmare."

Legal Aid Society of Hawaii works to get the homeless the documents they need to get back on their feet.

"The birth certificate, depending on the state, can take anywhere from two to four months to get," Kelly said.

Tack on another few weeks for a social security card and factor in the time it takes for an ID to arrive once you apply at the DMV -- and officials say, on average, people wait nearly half a year.

"The Real ID law is meant to prevent terrorism, but it actually makes it a lot more difficult for people to access services and to get off the street or to get into housing," Kelly said.

Many documents require proof of residency and a legal address -- nearly impossible for most.

"If you're living on the street it's very difficult to keep ahold and keep your documents safe. It's not uncommon for me to see somebody two or three times to get a replacement birth certificate because they've lost it," Kelly said.

"We'll ask everybody if they want us to keep a copy of all their identification or if they want us to keep the original -- not everybody wants to, but some people do," Rucker explained, adding the policy has helped to cut down on wait time for individuals who need ID's replaced.

29-year-old Russ says he's been struggling for several months while waiting to get his ID replaced.

"I dropped my wallet, realized about three minutes later, went back to where I was at -- and it was completely gone. My birth certificate, everything was in it," Russ said.

He's been living on the streets since November.

"You can't get jobs without an ID, so you don't get no money or income and you can't get out of here. It's impossible to do anything," Russ said.

"I think many people are homeless because the system that we've set up is not conducive to helping people get off the street," Rucker said.

"If they could have some sort of temporary government ID or have some of the rules changed so that people can get in -- assuming that they're applying for their birth certificate -- then maybe we could bend the rules a little bit to get people housed quickly," Kelly said.

Service providers say they're their best to help as many people as they can under the circumstances.

"People who are homeless have multiple issues. It's complicated. It's not just that, oh those people don't want to be in housing or those people are using drugs and alcohol. It's very complicated and what I'm learning as I'm working in this field here --everybody is waiting for somebody else to do something and nobody wants anything in their backyard. We're never going to tackle this problem unless the entire community gets behind it," Rucker said.

"I would just ask that the stereotypes be put aside because I've done this work for over 12 years now and I've seen every type of person, every former type of job. I've seen therapists, I've seen case managers, I've seen doctors and lawyers being homeless and in programs trying to recover -- so I don't think any one of us is untouchable from homelessness. I would just ask that we be compassionate and try to help people as best as we can to get back to independent living," Kelly said.

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