Ensuring Homeless Youth Have the I.D.s They Need

Matthew Glover, a case manager at Urban Peak’s drop-in center in Denver, Colorado, has been assisting a young man from Detroit who had his wallet stolen. For five months, various clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) provided inconsistent information about acceptable documents and exceptions necessary to get a new state-issued identification, or ID, card, Glover said. After multiple trips to the DMV, the young man remains without the ID he needs.

Proof of identification is essential for many of the things homeless youth need as they get back on their feet, including jobs, housing, and food assistance. It’s also often needed to obtain other forms of ID, catching youth in a difficult cycle. Unfortunately, the requirements for getting a state ID, driver’s license, birth certificate, social security card, or other identification document differ in each state and can be challenging to navigate. For runaway or homeless youth, likely disconnected from family, it can be especially tough.

“[ID-issuing agencies are part of] a system that is not based on youth empowerment,” says Angela Vigil, director of pro bono and community service at Baker & McKenzie, a law firm in Miami. “It’s designed for the adults working with kids—case workers, probation officers, Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, volunteers, and other service providers. For youth, even at times for those who are 18 years old, the system is not designed to let [them] do anything on [their] own.”

From finding ways for states to make the process smoother to identifying strategies to empower young people, service providers and policy advocates are working to ensure homeless youth are able to obtain the IDs they need.

Improving the Process

For homeless young people, one of the first obstacles to getting an ID is paying for it.  According to a report from the Center for American Progress (PDF, 855KB), a handful of states and jurisdictions allow people experiencing homelessness to waive or reduce the fee to get their ID—including California, Florida, Connecticut, Nevada, Kentucky, Illinois, and Washington, D.C.

In addition, some states allow homeless individuals to list the address of a shelter or drop-in center as their personal address, or to submit school photo IDs in lieu of the required state ID to get a social security card. In some cases, a service provider can apply for an affidavit to certify that the young person is who they say they are, a process normally reserved for caregivers. Young people can then use the social security card to get their state ID.

Unfortunately, many other states do not have such laws.

Amy Louttit, a public policy associate at the National Network for Youth, hopes to change that. She and her colleagues are creating a state-by-state guide listing the process and requirements to get an ID. The guide will assess which states are doing well in making IDs accessible, which need improvement, and a model law that advocates can take to their state policymakers.

At Baker & McKenzie, Vigil and her colleagues have also created comprehensive legal handbooks listing state laws that cover a wide range of issues, including the steps to get an ID. “[The handbooks are] intended as an empowerment tool, designed to be accessed by youth themselves, though we recognize that they will probably be used more so by adults sitting next to a youth to try and help them get an answer,” Vigil says.

Empowering Youth and Service Providers

While modifications to the ID process can be helpful, they are more useful if people in direct services are aware of them. Louttit recommends training homeless liaisons to create their own state-specific education materials about obtaining IDs. For example, liaisons working in states that allow youth to use a student ID can create a document highlighting that exception. For states that require the fee reduction or waivers, liaisons can similarly craft a boilerplate letter certifying that a young person is homeless. 

“Even lifting that little bit of a burden makes learning the information and being able to advocate much easier,” Loutitt says.

Back in Denver, Glover has taken his own steps to reduce the amount of time he and young people spend getting IDs. He now takes young people to the DMV in groups after determining they all have the required documents. He also created a flow chart for his fellow outreach workers to help them quickly make the same determination.

Additionally, Vigil suggests that youth have a “passport” or “backpack” that includes all of their important information, including their ID, shoe size, grade level, social security number, or any mental health diagnoses.

Giving youth and trusted adults access to this information will help young people more easily access needed services, she says, and place them on a steadier path to a safe, stable adulthood.