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Even for the Homeless, No ID Means No Government Aid

A small number of states, however, are starting to let homeless people get IDs and birth certificates for free. Advocates hope the idea becomes a national trend.

A homeless man shows off an unofficial photo ID that he received from a shelter.
(AP/Justin Sullivan)
Homeless people arguably need government aid more than anyone, but they often lack the required documents to get it. In hopes of fixing that, homeless people in New Jersey will soon be able to get a state identification card for free.

Those fees are "the only thing standing in the way between those homeless citizens and services to help them get on a pathway to self-sufficiency,” says Raj Mukherji, a state assemblyman who sponsored two pieces of legislation on the issue.

One of those bills, which waives fees for replacement birth certificates, took effect in January. The other, which waives fees for ID cards, goes into effect in July.  

Lack of identification results in nearly half of the homeless population being denied access to basic social services, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. New Jersey joins eight other states trying to address the problem by waiving fees for homeless people applying for ID cards and birth certificates.

Most of the states with a waiver in place use the same approach as New Jersey and require a third-party service provider to verify that the person is homeless.  

People experiencing homelessness often lose their ID cards during a crisis, says Eric Ortega, a program director at the Homeless ID Project, a nonprofit in Arizona. They could have been robbed; they could have left the documents while fleeing a domestic violence incident; or they could have lost them in a flood or fire.

“It’s crazy how many fires happen,” he says.

Ortega adds that many of the Homeless ID Project’s clients come from outside Arizona, making it especially difficult to track down a birth certificate or ID. 

Currently in New Jersey, the Department of Motor Vehicles charges $18 for an ID card, $5 for a replacement, $18 for renewal and an additional $6 for the digitized photo on the card. The state's Department of Health charges $25 for a birth certificate and $2 for a replacement.

But while it’s great when states waive fees, Ortega says the application process is still onerous for a person who has experienced a crisis and lost most of their belongings.

Nevertheless, Mukherji wonders if there's an appetite for the same policy in even more states. “I do hope it becomes a trend,” he says. 

If his law's history in New Jersey is any indication, other lawmakers shouldn't have a problem passing similar legislation in their states: Both of Mukherji's bills received rare bipartisan support without a single dissenting vote.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect spelling for the last name of New Jersey state Assemblyman Raj Mukherji. 

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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