May 26, 2022

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It’s tough for NJ’s homeless to get IDs. But to access vital services, they must show IDs

8 min read

For two years Alberto Volpe rotated between crashing on friends’ couches, bunking in Newark shelters where he felt unsafe, sleeping on the street, or using his paycheck for a night or two of reprieve in hotels.

All the while, he felt trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare. To receive help with housing or other forms of public assistance, or to collect a paycheck from a new job, he needed his birth certificate and Social Security card, neither of which he had. To obtain those crucial IDs, he needed other documents that proved his identity, which he also didn’t possess. And with most public offices closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was difficult to reach a live person to ask questions, let alone get help.

“You hit obstacles every turn you get,” said Volpe, 40. “You think you’re making headway, yet you’re going two steps back. You finally get in touch with someone and their response is, ‘Unless you have all three documents, we can’t help you.’ With no one advocating for you, it’s difficult.”

The bureaucracy and hurdles that someone experiencing housing insecurity must clear to get a photo ID, birth certificate or Social Security card can delay the very help needed to pull the individuals out of homelessness, including rental assistance, public housing, welfare and other social service programs.

This concern is made more urgent as many shelters are overwhelmed with dwindling staff and a rise in those seeking services now that New Jersey’s eviction moratorium has ended and rents are rising rapidly.

“Before the pandemic, it was difficult to secure an ID for a person who lacks any kind of records … now it’s all but impossible,” Connie Mercer, CEO of the Mercer County-based nonprofit HomeFront, recently told lawmakers on the Assembly Housing Committee. “I’m sitting on a lot of government money that I can’t give out because the rules mandate documentation. We need to get creative.”

Shaun Hutchinson, right, and Yahaira Padilla, of Bergen County Veterans Services, talk with a homeless man who was sleeping in a wooded area in southwestern Bergen County on Wednesday Jan. 26, 2022. Bergen County Health and Human Services personnel travel throughout the county to find and document homeless individuals during the Point-in-Time homeless count.

Shaun Hutchinson, right, and Yahaira Padilla, of Bergen County Veterans Services, talk with a homeless man who was sleeping in a wooded area in southwestern Bergen County on Wednesday Jan. 26, 2022. Bergen County Health and Human Services personnel travel throughout the county to find and document homeless individuals during the Point-in-Time homeless count.

The need for IDs extends to other basic needs beyond social service help. They are required when picking up a medical prescription, enrolling in school or workforce programs, opening a bank account or mailbox or entering public buildings.

It’s a common concern for people experiencing homelessness, whose circumstances make holding on to important documents more difficult.

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Women or children fleeing domestic violence don’t have time to rifle through files, or their abusive partners or guardians won’t allow them access to the stored documents.

Law enforcement clearing an encampment may toss or misplace papers stored in a tent.

A family’s house may have flooded or burned down, destroying the papers, or a person may have lost them moving from one temporary home to the next.

“When you don’t have a permanent address, when you’re trying to figure out where to sleep and get your next meal from, it can be almost impossible and extremely discouraging and feel like an enormous barrier to ever getting out of homelessness,” said Eric Tars, legal director for the National Homelessness Law Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit aiming to end homelessness. “People become depressed and give up because it seems so insurmountable.”

In Bergen County, roughly half of the people staying in the county shelter lack some form of identification that is required before they can receive social service help, said Julia Orlando, director of the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center.

“Normally it’s not as complicated as it is right now,” Orlando said. “Our clients do better face-to-face and having someone walk them through the process. Having public offices closed and doing things online that may require a credit card — all these kinds of things have made it more complicated. The wait times are longer because they’re trying to help a lot of people.”

When Volpe moved off the waiting list and into the Bergen County shelter in July 2021, it took two months to secure the documents he needed. The county partnered with the Social Security office, which let the shelter know when someone canceled an appointment and a shelter resident could take the open slot.

Finally, with his precious personal documents in hand, Volpe was able to complete an application for housing help, and secured an emergency housing voucher. He found an apartment in Lodi — the landlord has an existing relationship with the Bergen shelter — where he pays $600 a month toward rent from his minimum-wage salary working at a metal factory, while the voucher subsidizes the rest.

“Not having stable housing, depression sinks in,” Volpe said. “It’s not a good place to be. Now I’m in a clean, safe, very nice building.”

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Problems and possible solutions

While the Motor Vehicle Commission now allows New Jerseyans to complete most transactions online, obtaining a non-driver’s license for the first time — what social service providers say the majority of the homeless population they serve need — still requires a trip to the agency.

And a handful of MVC changes added additional complications for the housing-insecure, homeless advocates say.

New Jersey requires residents to show six points’ worth of documents to prove their identity and residence when applying for a license or state ID, with certain documents assigned more points, such as birth certificates or passports, and others fewer, such as a bank statement or property tax bill.

Last summer, New Jersey added an additional requirement to the list: proof of Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. Applicants would need their original Social Security card — copies are not accepted — a W-2 or pay stub, or an official tax document.

But those who don’t have a Social Security card may feel stuck, because to get a new Social Security card, an applicant must show a valid state ID.

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Because Social Security offices were closed during the pandemic, a card applicant was required to place a valid ID in a drop box and wait several weeks for it to be returned to them. For many, being without their license for weeks poses a hardship, while others don’t trust that they will get it back.

Another option is to provide detailed and recent medical records signed in ink by an attending physician, according to briefing materials sent to legislators written by Julie Janis, social services coordinator for the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, a Mercer County nonprofit that provides ID assistance, meals, case management, education and other services for those in need.

However, the medical records option doesn’t appear to work too well.

“Of the dozen or so we have attempted to obtain in this way, 100% have been rejected or returned to us,” Janis wrote.

The nonprofit suggested the Social Security Administration create an accessible form that people can take to medical appointments to ensure they collect the appropriate information to obtain a new Social Security card, or that the agency be more flexible in the medical records it accepts.

Advocates also suggest the MVC accept award letters from public agencies that include the last four digits of the recipient’s Social Security number on it as proof they have one.

Another roadblock cropped up during the pandemic when the MVC rearranged its operations, assigning specific locations to handle certain procedures and not others, said Joyce Campbell, executive director of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. After this change, the Trenton location stopped administering non-driver IDs.

“Before, the people we served were within walking distance of the Trenton facility,” Campbell said. “Now, they instead take two bus rides and walk half a mile in a dangerous area if they’re lucky enough to even get an appointment.”

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To make sure the process is accessible to those who need it across the state, all MVC offices should issue all documents, the nonprofit suggests. Or non-driver IDs could be issued by the Department of Health vital records office instead of the MVC, and nonprofits that are certified by the agency could be allowed to verify a recipient’s identity to make the process smoother.

Currently, boards of social services use “presumptive eligibility,” which helps the agencies immediately help someone when they are homeless. Advocates say a similar standard should be adopted by agencies issuing IDs, so that they require minimal documents to prove that a homeless person is who they say they are.

New Jersey has made some progress to remove barriers for those experiencing homelessness in recent years.

For instance, people without a permanent address can obtain a non-driver ID or birth certificate at no charge if they bring to the MVC a letter from a social worker or emergency shelter coordinator saying the applicant is experiencing homelessness. The letter must be dated 10 days before in order to waive the fees of around $25 each, and people must still meet the six-point requirements.

Added complications

Others experiencing homelessness may have added complications based on their criminal histories or age.

Typically, only 20% of people leaving prison have birth certificates, said former Gov. Jim McGreevey, chairman of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation, a nonprofit that helps people leaving incarceration.

Identification is crucial for the many in prisons who suffer from addiction and need Medicaid and other pharmaceutical treatment, as well as temporary emergency housing, job training and general assistance, said Damon Watson, legal services project manager for the New Jersey Reentry Corporation.

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“Another important reason to have an ID is that it is essential to the legal process when we are trying to have outstanding warrants recalled,” Watson said. “We want our clients to have a second chance and try to remove them as soon as we can. If a person is stopped and has an outstanding warrant, not having an ID on them also just adds to the trouble.”

People exiting prison should remember to keep their Department of Corrections ID, because it counts as two points towards obtaining an MVC ID, Watson said.

People younger than 18 can experience additional roadblocks getting social service help without IDs.

“Young people, many of them LGBTQ youth kicked out by their parents or those escaping domestic or sexual abuse, have the added layer of needing an adult signature to get their Social Security card or birth certificate,” said Darla Bardine, executive director of the National Network for Youth, a nonprofit aiming to end youth homelessness.

“And it’s often a chicken-and-egg situation, where you need an address or lease to show your proof of residence to get an ID, but in order to afford rent you need a job that requires the ID first,” Bardine said. “It’s a catch-22.”

Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter covering affordable housing and its intersection of how we live in New Jersey. For unlimited access to her work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @abalcerzak

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: NJ homeless resources: ID process, vital services complications

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