ORLANDO — “Once you fall through the cracks, it’s very difficult to climb out,” Carlos Gonzales says.
Gonzales, 68, fell through the cracks six years ago. To begin the climb back out, all he needs is a Florida identification card.
But for a person who’s been homeless, that can be a tall order — financially and bureaucratically.
Gonzalez’s body shows the wear and tear of age and years of living on the street: cataracts, a broken hip, fingers broken on separate occasions by a bicycle thief and a drug addict, renal failure, and diabetes. At one time he received Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, monthly payments from the government for people with low income and few resources who are 65 or older, blind or disabled.
“I was getting SSI,” Gonzalez said. “But then I lost my I.D. and I lost everything.”
Step by confusing step, IDignity is helping him begin to get everything back.
“He was one of the first I started with,” said attorney Jacqueline Dowd, a former Florida assistant district attorney who is a driving force behind IDiginity. She is the managing attorney of Legal Advocacy at Work, one of many organizations supporting IDignity in its ministry.
iDignity clients receive assistance with birth certificate applications. In front is volunteer Paula Avery. Photo by Karen Shaw.
Michael Dippy, a member at First United Methodist Church, is IDignity’s director. He spoke about the need for IDignity in a video about the ministry.
“It becomes almost a human rights issue because you can’t survive in this society legally without these documents,” he said. “You can’t apply for a job or apply for school. You can’t get social benefits or medical benefits or whatever. If you somehow get a check, you can’t cash that check. You know, obviously, you can’t open a bank account. These little silly cards really give people dignity.”
IDignity holds monthly events, usually at the Orlando Union Rescue Mission, but its December event was held at the old Amway Arena as part of Homeless Network of Central Florida’s Project Homeless Connect.
Project Homeless Connect is a one-day event that brings together the resources and agencies to provide one-stop services for the homeless: employment opportunities, mental health and substance abuse services, medical care, legal services, birth certificate and identification services, and haircuts, meals and shelter. The event occurs four to five times a year.
IDignity expands on the Project Homeless Connect model, bringing the agencies needed for clients to get identification under one roof and holding events more often. The group also has volunteer runners who go to government offices like the I.R.S. on behalf of clients — who can’t get in because they don’t have identification — and donated taxi service that allows for runs to schools and hospitals for those records.
Events also are held in DeLand and Sanford, and the organization is in talks to get the program into the Orange County jail system. The model is so effective, Dippy says, that he has received calls from all parts of the state and California.
“I want to say ‘Here, take this model. It’s a good one,’ ” he said, adding that the model’s success is owed to the good relationships staff and volunteers have with government agencies.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the Orange County Health Department, Veterans Affairs, the Social Security Administration and legal counsel are among the agencies attending IDignity events.
About 985 people flowed into the old Amway Arena Dec. 10 looking for help, and even with so many other services available, the need for identification assistance was overwhelming.
“Almost every client who walked through that door … wanted IDignity services,” Dippy said. “They self-prioritized that I.D. is what’s most important to them right now.”
No easy feat
Getting an identification card is a challenge. The cost has more than doubled in recent years, and paying for lost documents needed to get the identification can be expensive.
It’s also a confusing process that sounds simple.
To get a Florida I.D., a person needs proof of identity and residency and documentation of a social security number.
But how do people get birth certificates if they were born outside a hospital? And how can people show proof of residency if they are homeless and live in the woods? For those who have changed their name, a common event for women, working through and paying for that extra layer of complexity in obtaining a birth certificate can feel like an almost insurmountable challenge.
Moreover, the Real I.D. Act, an effort by the federal government to improve and standardize state identification criteria nationwide, requires states to adhere to federal guidelines in order for their identification to be accepted by federal agencies, like the Social Security Administration. Its implementation makes things harder.
“The barrier is significantly higher,” Dippy said.
At the Amway Arena, volunteers sat behind desks at Legal Counsel, Social Security Administration, Florida Birth Certificate and Out-of-State Birth Certificate stations helping clients like Jeremiah Grier, 19, who came to the Amway Arena to get a social security card and state identification.
“I’ve been trying to find the best thing I can do to get a job,” said Grier, who lives with friends. He needed additional documentation, and volunteers let him know school records would do.
Then there was William Baez, born in Puerto Rico and in need of identification to get food stamps. Fortunately, he still had his original birth certificate, but he needs help establishing proof of residency since he lives in a camp outside Orlando.
And Yvonne Morales, 17, was advised to attend to the event by one of her teachers.
The high school senior, who wants to be a nurse, needs proof of Florida residency to apply for college.
“It’s great that they’re doing this,” said Morales, who lives with her boyfriend and his family and is the mother of a 2-year-old. “It gives a lot of people the opportunity to get what they need. It’s a little slow, but that’s OK. It’s worth the wait.”
It certainly was worth the wait for Gonzalez, who had been homeless for seven years. He was recently released from a skilled nursing facility and rents a room. The process of getting his birth certificate from New York took two years.
Finally, he sat outside the old Amway Arena in the Florida Licensing on Wheels (FLOW) vehicle, a mobile unit of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, providing the information that would be printed on his identification card.
“I’m glad I didn’t give up on you,” he said to Dowd earlier, just before she hand-delivered his documents to the FLOW mobile.
By 1 p.m. he had his card in hand.
“Now for food stamps,” he said.
Every IDignity event costs $15,000-$16,000 and requires about 90 volunteers. More information about IDignity is available at http://www.idignity.org.
News media contact: Gretchen Hastings, 800-282-8011, firstname.lastname@example.org, Lakeland
*Hastings is executive editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Shaw is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.