A measure in the state Legislature is aimed at eliminating barriers to identification for homeless people by creating a program to provide people without homes a free ID card, also known as an identicard.
OLYMPIA — People without identification have a harder time renting an apartment, opening or accessing a bank account, using medical insurance, qualifying for federal benefits, like food stamps, or even staying in some homeless shelters. And, of course, getting a job is nearly impossible.
Even joining the military, a common outlet from poverty in the past, is also unlikely without identification.
“It just becomes this really, really, really unique, odd barrier that none of us really think about until it might happen to us,” said Spokane City Council member Kate Burke.
A 2006 national survey conducted by the Brennan Center found that as many as 11 percent of Americans, or more than 21 million people, don’t have government-issued photo ID, with elderly, minority populations or low-income individuals being least likely to possess identification.
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Meanwhile, the $54 fee for a state-issued identification card in Washington is too much for many, particularly those who lack shelter.
A measure in the state Legislature, Senate Bill 5664, is aimed at eliminating barriers to identification for homeless people. If passed, the Department of Commerce and the Department of Licensing (DOL) would be required to create a program to provide homeless individuals with a free ID card, also known as an identicard.
It would cost DOL and the Department of Commerce nearly $460,000 from 2019 to 2021 in operating expenditures, according to the Office of Financial Management.
After the program is fully developed, the cost from 2021 to 2023 for DOL goes down to $355,200, proponents say.
“When you think about all the many, many instances that each one of us are required to show ID on a regular basis, I think it’s easy to understand what a barrier a lack of ID can be,” said Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, the prime sponsor of the bill, in a public hearing Wednesday in the Transportation Committee.
Rud Browne, Whatcom County Council member and a vocal advocate for further homeless-identification programs, agrees, saying that he sees lack of identification as an insurmountable obstacle to escaping poverty.
“I can’t guarantee that everybody who gets ID will get off the streets,” said Browne. “I can guarantee that 100 percent of people who do not have ID will never get off the streets.”
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the top Republican on the committee deciding whether the bill moves forward, declined to comment on the proposal.
To be eligible for the free identicard, applicants would have to meet the definition of a sheltered or unsheltered homeless person, reside in Washington state and not have a valid state-issued identicard or driver’s license.
In Spokane, the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) can help people lacking identification get an identicard by providing them with a voucher that reduces the cost to just $5, the rest of which is paid for by a nonprofit, essentially allowing them to obtain the card for free. Even this system is cumbersome, however, as applicants have to trek from the nonprofit to get a $5 check to a DSHS worker to receive the voucher, and then to a DOL office to be issued the ID.
Homeless youth under the age of 18 could pay just $5, the cost to produce the card. Subsidies allowed the DOL to issue 37,015 DSHS welfare reduced fee identicards in Washington in 2018, according to a department spokesperson.
Based on increases in free IDs in Illinois after the creation of a similar program, the Department of Commerce estimates that 15,000 additional cards would be issued to homeless people each year. At least eight other states, including California, Nevada and South Carolina have decided to waive fees for the homeless to get identification, according to Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trust.
While being the 13th biggest state by total population, Washington had the fifth largest homeless population in the country last year, with more than 22,000 people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2018, according to federal data.
In 10 years, more than 20,000 in Florida have been served by Orlando-based nonprofit IDignity, which helps people get their birth certificate, Social Security card, driver’s license or state ID. A similar program in Whatcom County has helped approximately 140 people to obtain ID each year since 2010.
Having seen the importance of ID firsthand, Spokane Public Defender Kathy Knox supports the legislation, but wishes it allowed for individuals to reapply for free ID if theirs are lost or stolen.
Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said in an email that his organization is in “general support” of the measure because it would allow for successful re-entry into society and enhance public safety.