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Lost Identity

A crackdown on driver's licenses harms the homeless.

John is a 36-year-old homeless man who has lived on and off the streets for years. Like many of Denver's homeless people, he knows that one of the biggest daily battles is simply proving that he exists. Yet the most-accepted means of validation -- a Colorado driver's license or state ID card -- can be difficult to obtain for someone with no fixed address and whose identification papers may be lost or stolen. But without an ID, doors slam shut.

"You can't get in the shelters without an ID," John says.

To obtain one, he knows from firsthand experience, a person needs "a birth certificate, a Social Security card and a permanent address."

And the process has gotten tougher in the wake of 9/11, since it was learned that more than half of the hijackers had fraudulently obtained driver's licenses.

"Since September 11, a lot of states have changed their policies," says Jack Real of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. "You have to have some kind of ID to get a birth certificate. You have to have an ID to get an ID."

"The states have been working to make the driver's license process more uniform and secure," says Jason King, spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. "We still have a mixed bag of practices across the nation. A chain can only be as strong as its weakest link."

King says his group wants all fifty states to follow the same procedures for issuing licenses. "What's the cost to the American public if we do nothing?" he asks.

Colorado, which was already cracking down a year ago because of mounting problems with identity theft, made it even more difficult post-9/11 to get a driver's license, often demanding a state-certified birth certificate before issuing an ID.

"It used to be a driver's license would just ensure you know how to operate a vehicle. Now it's an identity document," says Sandra Lowman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Revenue, which runs the motor-vehicle division. "We have more responsibility."

In years past, Lowman says, Colorado would issue a driver's license to almost anyone who had a valid license from another state. However, a few states didn't require a birth certificate to get a license, so someone with a license from one of those states could exchange it for a Colorado license without any background check.

"There were some states issuing licenses without proof of residency or legal presence," she says. "If you were from Canada and wanted to live in America, you could go to one of those states and get a license, and then go to the state of your choice and swap it for a license."

Now the department asks all people applying for a Colorado ID to have either a state-certified birth certificate or a valid visa. The idea is to make sure that everyone who gets a Colorado ID was either born here or is in the country legally.

"This [crackdown] causes additional burdens for people who already have lots of burdens," says Real.

Without an ID, homeless residents have trouble getting jobs, applying for Social Security, or getting beds at shelters or motels. For those from outside Colorado, problems intensify. The state requires those who've never had an ID in Colorado to present two forms of identification, such as marriage or military-service records.

"It makes it hard for people living on the street, who may lose their ID," says Heather Beck, who also works for the coalition. As a result, some suffer needlessly. Beck cites as an example a disabled client who can't get Social Security benefits because he has not obtained a valid ID. Forced to live outside in winter, he suffered frostbite and had to have part of his foot removed.

Lowman notes that the new rules in Colorado have caused hardships for many people, not just the homeless.

"We just had a gentleman who came from another state and didn't have a birth certificate," she says. "His license had expired, and he had to get an extension from that state so he could drive long enough until he got his birth certificate."

Lowman says the state department of social services has obtained federal funding for a program to help the homeless get their birth certificates; she says her department is trying to work with organizations that serve the indigent.

"There are options open for homeless people," she says.

John, who says he was once arrested because he didn't have an ID, was recently able to get a new one through the St. Francis Center, which helped him with the $13 he needed to order a birth certificate. He used the Salvation Army's downtown office as his home address.

Still, he says, the entire process was "a big hassle."

 
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