The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Frankie Sanders Munoz, second from right, works with Linda Flick, left, a volunteer for Foundry United Methodist Church’s I.D. Ministry. Scores of low-income Washingtonians face an often months-long road toward gaining or regaining their government identification. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

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.

“So, we don’t have anything?” the volunteer asked. No. Nothing.

I’d seen situations like Brown’s many times. I volunteered at the I.D. Ministry from January 2015 to March 2016. Two Saturday mornings a month, I would help the ministry’s poor or homeless clients navigate the bureaucracy of acquiring government identification. For most people, replacing a lost driver’s license or other ID is an inconvenience but not an ordeal. For Foundry’s clients, however, the path to an ID is more like a high-stakes test of endurance and resourcefulness.

Brown, 61, a former receptionist, had taken three buses from Northeast Washington to the church at 16th and P streets NW, but it was clear she had been on a longer journey. After her mother’s death in April 2014, Brown lost the apartment they had shared. She returned from the grocery store one day to find her belongings on the sidewalk. She had been evicted.

“I tried to ... salvage what I could, but I was by myself,” she said. Her Social Security card and birth certificate were among the things lost that day. Since then, she had been floating from couch to couch among acquaintances, paying her hosts what she could and trying not to overstay her welcome. When I asked about her current housing, she said only, “It’s not a good situation.”

Brown had spent a month visiting D.C. government agencies, looking for guidance on how to regain her identification without success. A nonprofit steered her to Foundry, where she hoped to secure the trinity of documents she needed: her birth certificate, a Social Security card and a valid, government-issued photo ID. Like many of the other people who visit Foundry, she was, by the time she arrived, frustrated and desperate.

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.”

The Rev. Ben Roberts, Foundry's director of social justice ministries, oversees its ID operation. When he took over the nearly two-decades-old program in 2013, he renamed it Imago Dei, Latin for "image of God." Tall and bearded, the 31-year-old has a skepticism of government efficiency that's rooted in experience. Without obstacles, the ID process could take about two weeks, but for many clients, he says, it lasts two to three months. "It mostly has to do with finding the time, energy and motivation to go to places and be told, 'No,' constantly," he explains.

For Roberts, identification is a moral and religious issue. “If you’re not allowed to have a job because you don’t have an ID, then that’s a serious theological problem,” he argues. “You’ve said not only do they not exist on paper, you’re denying them their piece of the image of God.”

Roberts and I have been friends for several years. He led me and my wife through I.D. Ministry volunteer training in 2015, when — because of sharply rising demand — the outreach program increased its hours. (Full disclosure: I’m communications director for Meals on Wheels America, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works with vulnerable populations. I wrote this story in my other professional capacity, as an independent journalist.) My fellow volunteers consisted of retirees and young professionals — capable, enthusiastic people operating with limited resources. Computers are scarce, so volunteers work mostly with pen and paper, a spotty filing system of folders and plastic bins, and binders thick with identification procedures for each U.S. state and Washington, D.C. To raise money, volunteers collect donations after Sunday services once a month.

Each month, Foundry assists about 130 people. Aside from providing instructions on what to do, offering encouragement was perhaps my second-most-important task — and the hardest. Many clients arrive needing their IDs immediately, for a job or housing opportunity that expires within days. They are largely unaware of the timeline they may face, instead believing they can get documents on the spot. Many leave so discouraged that they abandon the effort. “They’re trying to do the right thing, and they can’t,” Roberts says.

Families with infants come in, and so do couples who need IDs to get married. Last year, 66 mothers sought help for themselves and, in total, 90 children. Without a way to prove kinship, parents can’t enroll their kids in child care or school, or apply for housing, nutrition assistance or health care. Some fear, wrongly, that they will be arrested on the street without proper identification.

While working on this article, I interviewed dozens of people trying to get their nondriver ID, or “walking ID,” as many call it. The poor and marginalized can easily disappear, and they often do. Phones get disconnected; people move unexpectedly, leaving no forwarding address, or they become homeless altogether; often, they’re swallowed up by the criminal justice system. Roberts recently received a returned Foundry check with a letter from the daughter of an elderly client who died before he could recover his identification. The church regularly destroys unclaimed documents of individuals who go silent. I didn’t know it then, but Patricia Brown would become one of the disappeared.

That Saturday, though, she listened as the 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.

Brown rested her head on her fist. “I remember a time when it was real easy to do this,” she said. The volunteer nodded in commiseration and handed Brown a proof-of-residency form. Brown said, her voice trembling, “You’ll probably have to go through the homeless verification process.” She left with two envelopes full of instructions, forms and checks.

Later, when I called the number where Brown said she was staying, another woman answered. She had no idea where Brown had gone, she told me and, furthermore, didn’t care.

Foundry receives client referrals from case managers at nearly 100 social-service groups, including D.C. agencies such as Vital Records, the DMV and the Mayor's Office on Returning Citizens Affairs (MORCA), which helps ex-inmates resettle. The MORCA referrals especially frustrate Roberts. "You would think that government agencies would have a way to do this themselves, since they are the ones issuing the documents in the first place," he says.

The official steps Foundry clients must take to obtain identification are only the half of it, he explains. Paying for child care or public transportation, or taking time off from an hourly wage job, can prolong the process or stop it altogether. Roberts wants more coordination among city offices and notes, as an example, Virginia’s practice of including birth certificate services at its DMV locations. “At this point, you’re getting your identity verified at three, maybe four different places, one of which is a doctor’s office,” he says. “How in the hell is a doctor supposed to know?”

The office of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) says that the DMV and the Health Department are coordinating to expand options for electronic birth certificates — which presumably would make access to birth certificates easier — but security and system requirements are delaying the changes. Last year, D.C. Council members David Grosso and Yvette M. Alexander introduced a bill to waive birth certificate and DMV fees for those eligible for Medicaid and food stamps. It passed unanimously. The mayor’s fiscal 2018 budget doesn’t include a line item to fund it, but Bowser’s office told me that existing resources will cover the implementation.

I met Darryl Lawrence at Foundry last summer. A volunteer with whom he had worked showed me an envelope thick as a novel addressed to New York City's health department. The city's vital records division has some of the nation's strictest policies. That day, Lawrence and Foundry were filing a petition to New York for his birth certificate. It would later be denied for lacking the right documentation. When I saw Lawrence this past February, they were filing a second petition. That one also failed. The third was filed in March with Lawrence's mother's maiden name, Miles, and a letter from Roberts with his own ID.

Born in Manhattan but raised in the District, Lawrence served with the Arlington County Fire Department for eight years until he suffered a severe brain injury while off duty. He spent time convalescing in a rehabilitation program with former Reagan press secretary James Brady. Lawrence’s memory can be foggy and his speech somewhat labored. He’s 63 and staying at his sister’s place in Northwest Washington after intermittent bouts of homelessness. He hasn’t had an ID for years, he says, since a visit to the DMV when the attendant told Lawrence his ID was expired and destroyed it. That incident still angers him, and he believes the DMV should be able to fix it. “They can prove it,” he insists. “It’s right there in the files. The only ID I’ve ever had was a D.C. license. Ever.” He’s never seen his New York City birth certificate, he says. (He later points out that he’s even been arrested and fingerprinted for minor infractions — making the government’s inability to give him an ID all the more frustrating.)

Foundry clients who apply for an out-of-state birth certificate by mail should expect a six- to eight-week wait, Roberts says, and that’s barring any complications. Clients born in Pennsylvania have experienced such dramatic delays that Roberts resorted to calling members of the state’s Senate. In one instance, Senate staffers eventually went to the relevant office to demand the documents, then sent Foundry the paperwork.

While he waits, Lawrence gets by on Social Security and the money he makes mowing lawns. A check-cashing store in Maryland gives him a pass on required identification. He’s enrolled in a program to learn how to service heating and air conditioning units. To land a job, though, he’ll need his ID.

Patricia Brown was right: Proving your identity in the District used to be simpler. It required one original primary document or two original secondary documents. The list of primaries included items such as a state-issued birth certificate, or even an expired driver's license or nondriver ID, as long as it was not more than 180 days out of date. Secondary documents included high school or college records or an insurance card with a name and date of birth.

The current, tighter restrictions have their origins in the 2005 REAL ID Act, authored by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.). Congress passed the legislation in response to security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Hijackers were able to obtain IDs and use them to rent cars and apartments, as well as open bank accounts. (Of the 19 hijackers, seven got documents in Virginia, including driver’s licenses.) The REAL ID law standardized the requirements for state IDs — a step recommended by the 9/11 Commission. Through phased implementation starting in 2014, it requires that citizens provide their local DMV with confirmation of their birth date (for those who are poor, this often means a birth certificate), proof of a Social Security number (often a Social Security card) and documentation of residency.

As Brown learned, D.C. requires two items to establish residency. A lease, mortgage, recent utility bill, credit card or car loan statement (of the past 60 days) are all possibilities — an approach advocates say is biased toward those with wealth. (The District does allow letters — with the envelope and dated within the past 60 days — from any government agency except the DMV. Homeless certification is also accepted.)

The D.C. DMV says that it’s working to expand the list of documents that can be used to prove residency. DMV Director Lucinda Babers also told me via email that her office uses its requirements to prevent residency fraud, a department priority.

After REAL ID’s implementation in the District in 2014, Foundry’s rate of checks cashed by the D.C. treasurer dropped from about 75 percent to 30 percent, as clients failed to meet the law’s requirements — though Roberts says the numbers are creeping back up. Within a year, local nonprofit Bread for the City received 1,000 client inquiries about IDs, prompting it to hire a full-time attorney for the issue.

“Before REAL ID was implemented, Bread did not experience a large number of inquiries regarding IDs,” says Danielle Moise, Bread’s attorney on its Accessing Identifying Documents Project. Anecdotally, she says, the nonprofit saw a decline from that 1,000 in 2015 (2016 totals are not in yet). “It’s unclear what the reason for this has been. I imagine a number of people have simply given up on this effort as getting an ID seems insurmountable,” she explains. “Our social workers tell me, however, that although the numbers have declined, IDs still seem to be the second-most- requested service, after requests for affordable housing.”

For his part, Sensenbrenner argues that there is no undue burden on the poor for ID access. A statement from his office said, “With many states and jurisdictions offering identification cards free of charge, the small number of citizens facing challenges securing these items can be assisted on the local level efficiently and at little or no cost.”

At 7:30 a.m. on a Friday in March 2016, cars and buses rounded Chevy Chase Circle toward the District. Just off the circle's manicured lawns, several people waited in the parking lot of Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church. A woman dragged a red suitcase; a man draped copies of Street Sense, the homeless newspaper, over his arm; a young man sat on a curb, his head in his hands.

Inside, Rebecca Kahlenberg prepared to open the church’s Transition Assistance Program, or TAP. Like Foundry’s I.D. Ministry, TAP helps people secure identity documents. It takes 15 walk-in clients a day, three days a week, on a first-come, first-served basis. Lines form between 6 and 7 a.m. for when the doors open at 8 a.m. Clients have recounted to Kahlenberg and me how they’ve walked for hours through the night to arrive by daybreak.

With 20 volunteers serving ID clients, capacity isn’t what limits TAP; it’s cost. For clients born outside the District, birth certificates can range from $25 in California to $12 in South Carolina. And fees rise quickly when assisting an entire family. In 2016, TAP paid more than $47,500 to the D.C. treasurer and out-of-state agencies, more than double its 2011 totals, and up more than 50 percent from 2012. Operating nearly a third fewer days each year, Foundry still spends $25,000 annually. TAP’s funds come from congregation donations and small grants. “Sometimes the DMV will send people here,” Kahlenberg says. “We’re tiny potatoes compared to a government organization.”

Across the country, churches bear similar costs. Memphis’s First Presbyterian Church spends about $7,000 a year on its ID and birth certificate assistance. The Stewpot at Dallas’s First Presbyterian Church budgets $50,000 annually — and spent more than $60,000 in 2016. In Minneapolis, the Basilica of St. Mary’s St. Vincent de Paul Ministries spent nearly $70,000 in 2016. The basilica sends so much money to Hennepin County that the local government instituted a voucher system and directly bills the church. My calls to a Las Vegas program went to voice mail, where the greeting said the operation was out of funds.

Meanwhile, D.C. agencies continue to send clients to nonprofits — including residents who have spent time in jail. County jails from Montgomery to Baltimore regularly destroy inmates’ personal property if unclaimed 30 days after intake. The D.C. jail’s procedures call for corrections staff to shred personal identification documents a year after entry to prevent identity theft.

Once released, former inmates can use their prison IDs and parole documents to get a temporary ID from the DMV. But many still end up at places such as Foundry for help. Roberts doesn’t begrudge former inmates seeking aid from the I.D. Ministry. It’s the bureaucracy that frustrates him. In February, Roberts temporarily blocked the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs from Foundry’s online appointment portal. “They would book every last slot, and we wouldn’t be able to see clients from any other organizations,” he says. He contacted the mayor’s office and offered to train its staff on District ID procedures. He got no response, he says.

Brian Ferguson, who became MORCA director in September, says he’s unaware of Roberts’s offer of training, but he notes his office now includes three staffers trained in ID recovery. In the mayor’s 2018 budget, he says, $2.3 million has been set aside to develop a central location for returning residents, where departments such as DMV, DHS and Vital Records will be represented. Included in the funding is $50,000 for driver’s licenses and IDs. “The mayor recognizes how important identification is in being able to apply for jobs and other services in the District,” he says.

Darryl Lawrence and I have stayed in touch. I visited him at his sister's home in Northwest Washington, where I found him and a friend playing chess on the porch. When we spoke on the phone in April, he told me New York had denied his third request for his birth certificate. The city recommended he work through the court system, he told me. Another suggestion included changing his name to his mother's maiden name, Miles — which he now believes is his name on his birth certificate, something he had not known. "You can't get the birth certificate without an ID. Can't get the ID without a birth certificate. So, what are they telling me?" Lawrence says.

The name on a birth certificate must match a current photo ID, says a New York City Health Department spokesperson. Attorneys can be enlisted in some cases. “We suggest that the advocate working on Mr. Lawrence’s behalf use this option,” the spokesperson says.

Roberts says the name situation is a common problem that’s not easily solved, but Foundry is still pursuing the case. So is Onoise Osunbor. He’s a community-support worker with Contemporary Family Services, a private company that contracts with the District’s Department of Behavioral Health to advocate for those with mental challenges. He’s been helping Lawrence for about a year. It was Osunbor who steered Lawrence to Foundry. “It’s a paradox, an irony,” Osunbor says. “Because of the global trend of terrorism, now he’s caught in a very odd situation.”

Osunbor believes Lawrence could have had his own housing if he had identification. Earlier this year, he went with Lawrence and several other clients to get city housing vouchers. One man is now in an apartment, and the other is getting one soon. Lawrence, however, didn’t have proper identification. “He got to the gates of heaven and he couldn’t get in because he didn’t have ID,” Osunbor says.

With the help of a cousin in New York, Lawrence and Osunbor are pursuing options — including having a judge rule on his identity. But the outcome remains unclear. Meanwhile, in our last phone call, Lawrence casually tells me that his sister is losing her home. “It’s getting warmer now,” he says. “I can sleep anywhere.”

Patrick Marion Bradley is a writer in Washington.

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