The difficulty of obtaining a government ID, especially while homeless

In the District of Columbia, as Kathryn Baer of Poverty & Policy explains in a recent post, securing an official ID as a homeless person (without an address, proof of residency, utility bills, etc) is a near impossible burden and requires systems of support that are often beyond the reach of homeless people. And yet, without an ID it is impossible (or nearly impossible) to secure employment, government benefits (such as TANF), apply for a housing voucher (or any sort of housing), or really to do anything that might help a person move out of homelessness and into a secure life.

I know I was in a panic two years ago when I, not homeless, lost my wallet (and thus my ID) and had no easy way to prove my identity to the state of Illinois. The situation was made urgent by an upcoming flight, for which I would need to show an ID to TSA officials before moving through security.

My lost ID was issued in California. My current residence was in Illinois. There is no reciprocity between states, and thus no way to easily verify my identity.

My passport was expired and I did not have a copy of my birth certificate; to obtain an original would have taken months since I do not live where I was born and could not apply for a copy in person. Luckily I have parents who (after much digging) found a copy of my birth certificate and were able to mail it to me express.

Then came the problem of proving my residency. I do all my billing online, but the DMV in Illinois does not accept online bills. Nor do they accept printouts of online bills.

Again, I was lucky and a supervisor made an exception (perhaps my impending hysteria did the trick?) and allowed my electronic bills as proof I lived in Chicago. Without these breaks, however, I could easily have been barred from obtaining an ID. Had I been homeless, out of touch with my family, without any documentation to prove my existence, I would not have been successful.

The maneuvering necessary for acquiring an ID becomes increasingly difficult when a person’s resources are scarce. This means that the process of identification in our country is skewed toward those with money and power. Minorities, immigrants, the homeless, anyone who lacks social clout is prevented from moving forward and upward with their lives. The American Dream is predicated on lifting oneself up by the bootstraps, but with so many barriers in place, the status quo is the only option.



  1. Thanks for the shout out. Your account of your own experience is interesting for two reasons. First, it strongly indicates that state-level document requirements are driven by the federal standards. Second, it confirms part of what I was saying. Producing all those documents can be challenging even for people who are securely housed. I hadn’t thought about the paperless account issue.

    I should add, however, that the DC doesn’t absolutely require a photo ID to process an application for TANF. About housing assistance, I’m not sure. But at this point, it’s not relevant because the very long waiting list has been closed for about two years.

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