Getting Identification!

Many reading this may wonder why I’d waste my time writing about getting identification. You may ask: what's the big deal about getting an ID? It should be easy! Such a task should be an easily-obtained accomplishment, and the truth is, for most people like myself it is simply an aggravating nuisance interrupting our occupied lives! 

Yet, for those living in poverty, for those who are homeless, they are struck by numerous debilitating complications and barriers, often making the process almost impossible!

For several months we’ve been trying to help one elderly gentleman get his State ID. He came to CCO with nothing! His case isn’t unusual, as many people come to us with nothing or next-to-nothing. No State ID. No Driver’s License. No birth certificate. No Social Security Card. No Passport. No DD214. No income. 

They want these documents, but for various reasons the hurdles are enormous! Did you know that opportunities like housing, benefits and employment fade away because people do not have that small rectangular card on them? It’s also very risky not to have a copy of our identification with us at all times. Did you know, there is a genuine fear of being locked-up for this very reason on the streets of Chicago?

I know too many people that have experienced the trauma of being briefly caged like an animal, simply because they were stopped by the CPD and didn't have anything on them to prove who they are. 

So why do so many come to us not have identification?

There are countless reasons why people wander around without an ID. Those experiencing homelessness often don’t have secure places to keep their important documents safe, so they often have to keep all of them in their backpacks or pockets. Having no identification goes well beyond just recklessly losing them. Evictions. Fires. Floods. Messy break-ups. Police harassment and tossing their documents down the drain. Incarceration. Bullying. Robberies. Pockets getting slit while sleeping on the train. The City callously tossing out their tents and belongings in the garbage truck. 

I'm not exaggerating, I've seen and heard it all, and so much more! When such a tragedy happens, they have to start the complicated journey again, often without any cash! 

Let's meet my friend Billy! (Not his real name)

Billy, he's almost 70, is homeless and came to CCO with nothing! And by using the word "nothing", I mean he literally came without any important documents proving his identity, and he is also without a Link Card or pension. He came stuck in the vicious cycle of needing one form of an ID to get another form of an ID. (Let me elaborate: You need your birth certificate to get your State ID, yet you need your State ID to get your birth certificate). He was also stuck in the roadblock of needing money to take steps forward. On top of that; he comes without the knowledge of navigating this tricky bureaucratic maze and accomplishing such a task!

This is where we enter Billy's life! This is where we offer more than "3 hots and a cot". The issue isn't why or how he lost these documents, the issue (of "loving our neighbors as ourselves") is how to help this gentleman navigate through a bureaucratic nightmare of epic proportions just to get what is rightfully his! 

Upon intake, we discovered Billy needed everything, but as I've mentioned already: identification is needed to get identification!

We started going through the usual hoops to accomplish this dream. We sent him to the local clinic to get his medical records so he could get his Social Security Card. He took this sealed document to the SS office and within a few weeks, Billy had it! 

He now had the vital little card with 9 numbers and his signature. Along with our “proof of address”, Billy now had 3 of the 4 requirements to get his ID. All he needed now was to prove his “date of birth”. 

This is where things got even trickier for Billy; he wasn’t born in Chicago and didn’t go to school in this great city either. What we normally do at this point is order someone’s school transcript, keep it sealed and send them downtown with their other documents to get both their ID and birth certificate! Unfortunately, the road going forward wasn’t that smooth. 

Billy was born in a small town in Mississippi. His birth certificate was unattainable without an ID, so we needed his school records. His caseworker made every effort to get these, but to no avail. What should be possible, was deemed impossible for some reason! Another roadblock! 

It was time to be creative. It was time to be innovative! Another co-worker came up with an ingenious idea; draft records. Due to his age and the Vietnam War, Billy would have had to register for Selective Service. He wasn't selected, but must be a record, right? We filled out the paperwork, sent a $27 check for his archival records and received them in the mail a couple weeks later. The creativity paid off! 

At long last, would this arduous task finally be completed? 

A little roadblock: Billy went downtown with all his documents, but was denied an ID once again. We couldn't believe it! 

He needed an advocate, so his case-manager and I drove him to the DMV with all his documents. We stood in lines, met with a supervisor, who looked over his archival record and they verified that this government document was worthy enough to prove his "date of birth". He could finally get his State ID! We stood in more lines, waited for numbers to be called, he had his photo taken and we eventually exited the DMV with a State ID and huge smile on his face! 

Mission accomplished! What a journey! Billy hadn't had an ID for 25 years. Yes, 25 years - the DMV gave us that number! What took a few months for us to achieve, our friend had been seeking and trying to get for 25 long years. 

Hope! "the greater the struggle, the more glorious the triumph"...

With ID in hand, doors open and there's new hope! We immediately sent a $17 check to Mississippi for his long awaited birth certificate. He now is receiving Food Stamps and is in process of applying for his pension. This simple rectangular card that seemed impossible to get, has created new opportunities and should eventually lead to housing. This tiny card offered Billy new found hope! 

Billy's story reminds me of the importance of 3 things: 
  • We must keep on persevering and not give in, despite the obstacles that stand before us! 
  • We must be creative and not surrender to the bureaucratic machine, despite all the roadblocks in the way!
  • And above all else, and despite the opposition and frustration, we must let love for our neighbour motivate us on the long winding journey or we won't make it to the end! 
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