Saturday, June 02, 2007

Identity crisis stumps many homeless:

Ed Lafayette has lost a lot of things over the past 10 years - his wife, his home, his job - but perhaps nothing as vexing as his photo ID.

Without it, he, like thousands of homeless people in the same situation, can't get help finding a new home, can't get a steady job, can't get medical care.

Not without other identification, most notably a birth certificate.

But they can't get that birth certificate without ... a photo ID.

"It's the biggest problem we have - it's the biggest problem we've always had, getting someone an ID," says Lela Jordan, director of the Vickers House in West Palm Beach, where homeless come for help. "Without an ID, you're pretty much stuck."

A tentative solution has come to light. But if it pans out, it will help only some of the homeless: the ones who land in the county jail.

Representatives from the sheriff's office and the public defender's office met recently to discuss the possibility of getting inmates without identification hooked up with the agencies, including the Department of Motor Vehicles, that provide ID, said Jennifer Loyless, who coordinates a program to help inmates after they get out.

The effort could help those who are arrested for trespassing or public drunkenness, but it doesn't eliminate the problem, Jordan said.

And it doesn't help Lafayette.

He hasn't been in jail since 2002, when he was arrested for being in a park after hours, according to court documents.

Lafayette said he had a Florida ID - not a driver license - several years back. But it expired and then he lost it. Because it was a Florida ID, he should have been able to skip the red tape and simply get another by contacting the state DMV, but he says the state reports no record of it.

So Lafayette sought help at St. Ann's Catholic Church.

"We get that request all the time," said Marsha Burkhardt, associate director for the church's homeless programs. The church offers the homeless showers, free meals and help navigating the documents system.

It's such a common request, the church sets aside several thousand dollars a year to cover the typical cost of about $50 per person, Burkhardt said.

Lafayette determined he needed his birth certificate and sent an application and a $15 check to New York to get it. But the check came back uncashed: proof of ID required.

"The law is very specific. Customer service is our number one goal, but obviously the law is written for a purpose and was tightened dramatically after 9/11," said Sandra Lambert, director of driver licenses for Florida.

She notes that the state can issue an ID to people who at one time held a driver license or state ID in some other states. The key is "some" - Florida doesn't honor those from 20 other states, Lambert said.

The folks who help the homeless pursue identification say they can spend days, even weeks on each case. Sometimes that means finding a homeless person's relatives.

She also likes calling town clerks rather than sprawling state agencies. Sometimes the clerks will take assurances from a church or social service agency that a person is who he says he is and send a birth certificate, Burkhardt said.

Getting a birth certificate in this state also requires a Social Security card - and that too requires ID.

But the Social Security rules are broader. The agency requires a photo ID, but if you don't have a driver license, state license or passport, it will accept a school ID, employee ID, marriage certificate, life insurance policy, health insurance card (not Medicare) or U.S. military ID.

That last has proven helpful to Jordan at the Vickers House. She said she was able to send a Navy veteran to the VA hospital to get an ID. Another man didn't have the actual ID, but had photocopies. "That gave us something to work with," Jordan said.

Many homeless folks don't stick around the weeks or months it takes to break through the bureaucracy, Jordan said. She has a pile of certificates for people who have wandered off.

Patience, however, doesn't guarantee success.

"Sometimes they don't even know where to look. You need the mother's maiden name, you need to know what county you were born in, what city you were born in," Jordan said. "Sometimes it's actually impossible to get their ID."

By Sonja Isger
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 02, 2007

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