A State ID Card Can Often be the Difference between Housing and Homelessness

By: Nicole Ann Gorny

Walking along the Detroit-Superior Bridge, one man approached another with a simple question: “Do you know where Eileen Kelly is?”

 Kelly’s reputation as Cleveland’s go-to source for those who need help obtaining identification documents had preceded her, as her friend—the other man on the bridge—would later point out with the coincidental story. She has been at the head of the Cleveland Identification Crisis Collaborative since it formed in 1999. And after a landmark year in 2013 during which the collaborative financially backed more than 6,000 ID document requests, Kelly was recognized as Advocate of the Year by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

 Kelly, who is also an outreach worker at St. Coleman’s, said she was humbled and honored by the recognition. She added: “All of our staff members and at other agencies are advocates of the year.”

 Through the Cleveland Identification Crisis Collaborative, 24 partner agencies including St. Coleman’s and 2100 Lakeside share resources to help Cleveland-area residents negotiate the messy and often counteractive process of obtaining identification documents. The West Side Catholic Center serves as the fiscal agent, and the collaborative employs one part-time advocate.

 After receiving a major boost in funding three years ago through a Cy Pres distribution, or money that was unclaimed after a class action lawsuit, the collaborative has seen dramatic growth in recent years. In this context, the collaborative is additionally increasing its advocacy efforts to complement the day-to-day work of tracking down documents. 

 A birth certificate in Cleveland costs $25, Kelly said, but the obstacles the collaborative faces tend to be more complicated than just finding money to back vouchers. The collaborative also has to stay abreast of constantly changing rules.

 Just last year, Kelly offered as an example, the social security department instituted a change that requires a person to show a photo ID in order to obtain a copy of his or her social security card. Because a social security printout is required to obtain a photo ID, complications arise. Catch-22 situations such as this litter the path to IDs, Kelly said.

 And considering that IDs are often required in order to gain access to critical resources such as transitional housing, alcohol and substance abuse programs and employment opportunities, obtaining IDs becomes particularly important, said Jim Schlecht, an outreach worker at Care Alliance who is familiar with the situation.

 “If you don’t have those items, even if you’re eligible to get into these programs, you’re paralyzed,” Schlecht said. “You’re stuck down at 2100 or at a campsite outside.”

 While walk-in clinics or staff at each member agency continue to coordinate the often time-sensitive process on a day-to-day basis, Kelly said the collaborative has recently been shifting toward more advocacy-based action as well. “The thing we’re trying to focus on right now is working on solutions, rather than waiting for the next obstacle to be thrown our way,” Kelly said.

 Alternative forms of identification are one area Kelly said the collaborative has been brainstorming. This could mean iris or palm identification, she suggested, or some sort of electronically accessed birth certificate. While members of the collaborative continue to put their heads together, the challenge becomes getting financial and institutional backing. “We’ve talked to so many politicians and government agencies,” she said.

 More broad advocacy efforts are also, in part, where Harriet Petti steps up. Hired as the collaborative’s only employee in July 2013, Petti said her role as advocate tends to extend beyond the day-to-day transactions. This includes seeking sustainable and long-term funding—Kelly noted the current round of Cy Pres money is expected to run out this fall, for example—and speaking up for the rights of those who don’t have printed identification.

 Often government agencies request identification documents, Petti pointed out as an example, even though the government owns and manages the same documents.

 “People should not have to come to us to get their own identity documents,” she said.  

 Editor’s Note:  Cleveland is one of the few cities in the United States with an ID Collaborative that has an advocacy component.  With voting in person now requiring ID this has become an essential service

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle May 2014 Cleveland, Ohio