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Ministry helps people obtain IDs (UM News)

July 31, 2023

Thanks to a paperwork error made more than 50 years ago, Deborah Holston’s life has been in limbo for the past three years.

Holston has been living with family members and struggles with mental health issues. She’d like to get a place of her own and a job, but she hit a major roadblock.

Because the name that appears on her Social Security card (Deborah Holston) doesn’t match the name on her birth certificate (Debbie Holston), she can’t obtain a District of Columbia ID. Without an ID, she can’t qualify for housing assistance, get a job, or receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.

Help came from volunteers for the ID Ministry at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., who assisted Holston with the necessary paperwork and connected her with legal assistance. After many phone calls, countless hours on hold, and numerous mailings, Holston’s name change was approved at a July 14 court date. With that hurdle cleared, she expects to obtain an ID soon.

“I’m just so grateful that we’ve made it to this point,” she said.

Holston’s story is one of more than a thousand cases handled each year by staff and volunteers at Foundry’s ID Ministry. For more than 20 years, the ministry has assisted clients — or “guests,” as the ministry calls them — to obtain the documentation they need.

“You really cannot function as an adult without an ID,” said Jackie Wright, social justice programs manager at Foundry, who leads the ministry. “You need an ID to get a job, housing and most health care services, to withdraw money from a bank, or to put your children or yourself in school. Not having an ID is a huge problem.”

Documentation requirements also are limiting some people’s ability to vote. Without a driver’s license or a state ID, many can’t exercise this basic right.

The barriers to obtaining documentation can be almost insurmountable, especially given the increased requirements imposed after 9/11 through the federal REAL ID law, which passed in 2005. The law was intended to harden the security of state-issued identification cards and driver’s licenses required for airline passengers. But for people who don’t have the needed documentation to get the IDs, the law makes life extremely difficult.

Clients lack identification for a variety of reasons. Unhoused clients often lost their documents while living on the street or had them stolen while staying in shelters. When people are incarcerated, their documents are taken but often aren’t returned when they leave prison and re-enter society.

“For me, getting my documents might mean going to a file cabinet,” said Cathy O’Sullivan, an ID Ministry volunteer. “But for many clients, their lives are not in that state of organization. If you live on the street and all your possessions are in a paper bag, what are the odds you have the documents you need to prove who you are? And if you don’t have them, what are you supposed to do?”

The bulk of the ministry’s work involves helping clients obtain D.C. IDs, which usually means tracking down birth certificates. Those documents must be requested from the person’s county of birth or, in cases such as with an adopted person, at the state level.

Staff and volunteers have helped clients obtain birth certificates from almost all 50 states. In some instances, they’ve also helped track down Social Security cards, marriage certificates, divorce decrees and school records.

“Some people can’t locate their birth certificates because they were adopted, or because their parents didn’t name them while in the hospital,” said Wright. As a result, their birth certificate might simply read “Baby Boy Jones” or “Baby Girl Smith.”

“I’ve had people in their 50s who found out for the first time that they were adopted, while talking with us in our offices,” said the Rev. Ben Roberts, executive director of Programs and Justice at Foundry. In those cases, the ministry may refer the client to a pro bono attorney for help getting adoption records unsealed to track down a birth certificate.

The ministry offers walk-in service, but many clients come via referrals from other social services agencies in the D.C. area, such as Pathways to Housing and Unity Healthcare Clinics.

“This frees up the agencies’ caseworkers to work on the higher level needs they’re best equipped to handle,” said Roberts.

Ministry staff and volunteers have assisted many clients whose lives were greatly improved by their help.

Wright recalled how one typo, a simple error made by a clerk almost 70 years ago, prevented a client from receiving Social Security benefits. The woman’s name was misspelled on her birth certificate, so it didn’t exactly match the name on her Social Security account. As a result, her application for benefits was stalled. In the meantime, the woman, 68, was barely scraping by. Finally, after months of effort, the ID Ministry was able to persuade government officials to provide an amended birth certificate.

Roberts assisted a young person who came to the ministry in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. Chris (not his real name) was working at a grocery store while attending college. Because his guardian had passed away just as he graduated from high school, there was no one to vouch for his identity.

Without an ID, Chris couldn’t get a bank account, so he had to pay exorbitant fees to cash his paychecks at check-cashing businesses and carry all his money on his person. And like many other clients, without an ID, Chris was unable to cash his COVID relief check from the U.S. government.

After multiple meetings over the course of six months — all conducted on the church’s patio, for COVID safety — Chris finally obtained the documentation needed for the ID.

Later, when PNC Bank heard about Chris’ plight at a policy forum, bank officials visited the ID Ministry to explore partnerships with local nonprofits to offer ID assistance to potential clients who can’t get bank accounts.

“It’s always great to have an individual success, but to have a corporation look for ways to open up their systems, too, that felt like a great win,” Roberts said.

The ministry is carried out by Roberts and Wright, who are paid staff members at Foundry, and about two dozen volunteers, some of whom bring related expertise or experience to the project. O’Sullivan, for example, is a retired government attorney. She specialized in antitrust law but is comfortable with rules and regulations and reading the fine print.

Many clients have faced multiple roadblocks. Some were treated disrespectfully by government employees. They’re grateful, even joyful, when they find the ID Ministry and finally get results.

“This is a chance to talk to real people with concrete problems and figure out how to help them,” O’Sullivan said. “I’m constantly inspired by the faith and the resilience of our clients.”

Eric Lee, audio visual manager at Foundry, volunteers with the ID Ministry on his own time.

On occasion, he admits, the work can be frustrating.

“I do a lot of cold calling to government offices, trying to get employees to pick up the pace,” he said. “The single most frustrating thing is ‘phone jail’ — where you enter 15 numbers and still have to wait on hold for 35 minutes.”

But the gratitude of clients keeps him coming back. That’s why Lee got involved in the first place. Before he started volunteering, he noticed people around the church building as they were leaving the ministry’s offices, looking happy and openly relieved.

“When the (needed documentation) finally comes in, they go out of their way to shake hands with anyone they see at the church,” he said. “They tell new clients coming in, ‘Everything is going to be OK. They are going to help you out here.’”

Roberts notes that the program’s name, “ID Ministry,” intentionally has a double meaning. ID stands for identification, but also for “Imago Dei,” which means “image of God.” When people lack documentation, he said, the government in effect denies their existence. The ministry offers another view — along with concrete help and hope.

“This is all wrapped up in the command to love your neighbor and serve those in need,” said Roberts. “No matter what the state says about you, you are made in the image of God. We’re going to help ensure that is returned to you.”