Tue, 12/04/2012

It’s hard to move forward — or just get by — when you don’t officially exist. Without proper ID, homeless youth find themselves in a nightmare scenario: their present situation is made absurdly worse, and the most promising paths out of it are largely blocked.

You can get a meal if you don’t have ID — along with clothes, supplies, and other of the most basic services we collectively provide our homeless youth at places like YouthCare’s James W. Ray Orion Center. Beyond that, we and our sister agencies find our hands pretty much tied, as a matter of law and contract.

Without ID, a homeless young adult can’t get into shelter. Housing is out of the question. At the Orion Center, we host a Seattle Public Schools Interagency Academy; it’s possible to start without ID, but enrollment is provisional. If you want to obtain a GED, you might study with us … but you can’t take the exam. You certainly can’t apply to college. You can’t work legally. You can’t even sign up for employment training.

There are young people still on the street doing all of these things: learning, training, even holding down jobs. Not without ID, though … and, consistently, half or more of homeless youth receiving case management at YouthCare walked in without it.  

That’s why we expend 50–60 staff hours per month helping young people obtain ID. We hold weekly ID workshops at Orion. We guide youth as they work on gathering documents and evidence, and we do a lot of reaching out ourselves on their behalf. We take groups of youth to the Department of Licensing — a good place to work on valuable life skills like patience (it can take hours), clear communication, and politeness … even when you’re told you’re going to have to come back again. And, we pay the fees and costs: around $75, on average, for youth starting from scratch.

For youth who’ve had Washington State ID before — but didn’t think to grab it, as they fled abuse; or lost or had it stolen on the street — it’s cheaper and relatively easy to get a replacement. It might be only a couple of weeks before doors can start opening.

For those who never had any, it’s a demanding process and frequently a long one: getting that entry pass to our world can take six months or more. Schools, other state institutions, programs such as foster care, physicians, hospitals — all are bound by rules and workloads that slow the process. As for parents and guardians, assuming it’s judged safe to contact them, they don’t always have what’s needed … or cooperate.

Meanwhile, every day on the streets is a day spent in chaos. To tell a young person they’ll have to wait weeks or months to take that step forward is to risk losing them.

There are exceptions. When we met him, Justin didn’t have a single document. Within three weeks, though, he and his case manager had what he needed. With ID in hand, he could apply for and was awarded an internship. He qualified for disability assistance: now he could receive it, and that eventually led to housing. He’s been building his future ever since.

The practical effect of getting ID is clear. As Justin’s case manager put it, “There has been a flowering in what he is able to do. So many things start with that single piece of paper.” That’s what we work for: removing barriers, opening up opportunity, giving young people a simple chance to get off the streets and prepare for life. 

The symbolic power of it is just as great. In fact, it’s profound.

A few months ago, a young man’s ID arrived in the Orion Center mail. When he came in, his case manager handed it to him. At first, he just spent a long time staring at it. Finally, he looked up … and said, “It’s like I’m a real person now.”

YouthCare staff person on the phone