The Catch-22 of Restoring Lost ID

A Florida nonprofit is stepping in to help the poor and homeless obtain the identification they need to participate in society.

When he was 4 years old, Axel moved from Cuba to Miami, where he built a successful life before moving to Orlando. He lived comfortably there until he was robbed at gunpoint in front of a convenience store. The robber took his wallet, but Axel went home that Saturday night happy to be alive, figuring he'd deal with replacing the wallet and its contents on Monday.

But when Monday came, Axel couldn't replace many of the items because doing so required his immigration documents, which were in the wallet. Federal law requires employers to check immigration documents annually. When Axel couldn't produce them, he lost his job. When he went to the Social Security office to get his Social Security card replaced, he couldn't produce the necessary immigration documents, so Social Security froze his records, including his bank accounts.

Soon Axel lost his home. For five months, he lived at the Orlando International Airport, trying to straighten out his situation by day and pretending he was a traveler by night. Having reached the end of his rope, Axel went to Orlando City Hall, explained his situation and that it was caused by having been robbed in Orlando, and said he wouldn't leave until someone helped him.

The city referred him to I Dignity, an Orlando nonprofit dedicated to helping poor and homeless U.S. citizens obtain the identification they need to participate fully in modern society. Within a week, IDignity got Axel a temporary ID card. In three months, his immigration documents were restored. Today, Axel co-owns an Orlando restaurant and lives in a downtown apartment.

Michael Dippy started IDignity in 2007, working with five downtown-Orlando churches. They understood that many poor and homeless people lack the official identification that is the first step toward self-sufficiency. An ID is needed to get an education, employment, health care and housing, among other things. And Florida is among the states that require a photo ID to vote.

Although restoring lost identification benefits both the individuals directly affected and taxpayers who have an interest in those individuals becoming self-sufficient, there is no government agency that helps restore lost identification. Solving the identity problem presents a Catch-22: To protect the integrity of the identity an ID card represents, getting official identification can't be too easy. Yet negotiating the bureaucracy to assemble the necessary background documents is complex and almost always requires a lawyer, something the poor and homeless can't afford.

IDignity has filled that need for more than 12,000 clients through monthly events. People in need of official identification routinely start lining up at 4 or 5 a.m. to get into the events, which are almost always oversubscribed.

Once inside, 115 volunteers, who include lawyers, judges and representatives of state- and federal-government agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, the IRS and the Social Security Administration, work to address each client's unique problem. The organization also holds smaller weekly events.

The cost of getting official Florida identification has more than tripled in recent years. For IDignity, it takes an average of $100 and three hours of volunteer staff time for each client. But no client pays a penny for the service.

Last year, IDignity won a prestigious social entrepreneurship award from the Manhattan Institute, a respected national think tank. The organization is now replicating. Three additional branches have opened in central Florida, and the next step is to take the concept national.

Dippy says the idea for IDignity grew out of a visiting pastor who challenged the members of his congregation to identify a social injustice or unmet need, then dedicate his or her life to solving it. Few have done that as effectively as has Michael Dippy.