During a recent conversation with some residents of Seattle’s Plymouth Housing, we got to talking about identification. One of the residents was trying to fly back East to attend his sister’s memorial and he was curious — and worried. Wasn’t there some kind of new law about what ID you need? Would he even be able to board a plane, something he hadn’t done in more than a decade?
They were talking about the REAL ID Act, a federal law that is slated to go into effect in every state in October 2020. And while Washington state is working hard to ensure compliance and make new identifications accessible, any change to the necessary ID for residents poses a potential problem to those who are currently unsheltered or who have been unsheltered in the past.
As Ashley Archibald wrote for Real Change in 2017, “documents get lost, stolen or destroyed, and acquiring replacements requires even more documentation and cash. A birth certificate in King County costs $20, plus fees between $4 and $12.50.” Additionally, there’s a Catch-22: You often need some ID to get another kind of ID.
Which makes next year’s REAL ID especially difficult. Even though many people won’t need the enhanced ID right away — people can still drive on their old IDs but need EIDs for domestic travel and entrance to certain places — any federal security change means identification gets harder to access and more necessary.
Any federal security change means identification gets harder to access and more necessary.
That’s a tall order for homeless folks; the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, after Sept. 11 and the new PATRIOT Act, studied identification problems among homeless folks and found that “54.1% were denied access to shelters or housing services [and] 45.1% were denied access to Medicaid or medical services.”
Some forms of identification — like a Green Card or a military ID — are already compliant with the new law. However, Washington driver’s licenses, which have long been kept more accessible with fewer barriers to obtain them, are not.
National security upgrades often seem universally beneficial — just use your passport or get a new ID and you’ll have no problem. But think about this: How often have you lost a driver’s license? Left your passport at home?
When you live inside, you’ve got places to store your stuff — and you still might lose it every now and then. For folks who have had to keep track of everything that verifies who they are and allows them entrance into any number of public spaces, a lost identification can mean inability to access life-saving services, let alone be permitted to move in and out of society like everyone else.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a freelance writer and political consultant. Her work has appeared in the Nation, the Atlantic, Bust, Pacific Standard, the Democracy Journal and others. She’s currently working on a book about Lou Graham.
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