The Stygian Nightmare of Lacking ID

Every Friday morning, from nine to noon, I work in the Social Services Ministry at Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, here in my adopted home of Tucson, Arizona. The people we serve are mostly people experiencing temporary or chronic homelessness, who need help with transportation, information, and perhaps most critically with identification.

Theft among those without stable housing is depressingly common. So often my clients come in, frequently at the point of tears, to tell me that they had been robbed of their meagre possessions while they slept in a wash or in an alleyway. The perpetrators take everything, including the victim’s photo ID.

Those of us who enjoy some degree of economic security may not realise how critical having identifying documents really is. We need them to drive, buy age-regulated substances, and to prove we are who we say we are when dealing with the government. For those without housing, however, having a valid photo ID can mean the difference between sleeping in a shelter or out on the street. Being able to access the behavioural health and substance abuse treatment services so many of them need. To use the clothing vouchers we give out at GSP, you need a valid photo ID. To get on waiting lists for permanent housing, you need a valid ID.

So if your entire life is in a backpack, and that backpack gets stolen, what are you to do? Well, hopefully you remember your social security number, your ID number, and your mother’s maiden name. Because in that case I can give you a voucher, you can go to the DMV, and be issued an Arizona driver’s license or state ID. But if you don’t? Well, the nightmare begins.

Hopefully, you were born in Pima County. Because then I can help you get a birth certificate, fill out the form and send in the check by mail. Once you’ve got the birth certificate, you can go get a social security card. Once you have that, then you can go get a picture ID.

If you weren’t born in Pima County, then I can’t do a damned thing except give you a list of places that might help you. Maybe. If they have the funding. If they’re open when you can get there. If their caseload isn’t full.

Already stigmatised and vilified by the rest of society, people who are experiencing homelessness who lack identification become unpersons. Living, breathing, thinking, and feeling ghosts. The damage this does to the psyche is incalculable. How many times have I seen a client break down in tears, saying “I don’t know what to do,” over and over again, as I try in vain to console them? I don’t know. All I know is that it breaks my heart again and again.

What consolation can I give a person who has become an non-entity in the eyes of society? You  need ID to get other forms of ID. Maybe, just maybe, you get your foot in the door if you remember all those strings of numbers, dates, and names that establish that you are who you say you are; but keep in mind, many of the people we serve at Grace St. Paul’s have untreated mental health issues and substance abuse disorders. The pain inflicted on them every day is too much to bear, so quite understandably many of them turn to drugs and drink. Quite a few who might be able to function quite well with the right medications cannot afford them, and the conditions they live in drive them into psychosis.

Under these conditions, being able to retain the necessary information to reestablish one’s personhood is a herculean task. I do not judge any one of them for being unable to meet it. These are people like you and me. A gentleman (who I’ll call Paul) that I aided last week was an accountant less than three years ago. His wife (who I’ll call Susie) contracted lymphoma, and the insurance he had through his work didn’t cover the full costs of the treatments. 

Paying to try and save Susie’s life drove them into debt, and they sold their home of twenty years to try and cover the astronomic costs. The hospital billed them into financial oblivion. Susie died all the same, leaving Paul with a mountain of debt. He was evicted from his apartment when he fell behind on rent, then terminated from his job because of his “unprofessional appearance,” the result of sleeping in his car and being unable to access a shower.

Two days before he saw me, all that Paul had left in the world was stolen, including the only pictures he had of his wife, as well as his birth certificate, social security card, and state ID. When he spoke to me he sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed. I tried to maintain my composure, but I broke down crying too. The worst thing was, I could do nothing to help him. He was born in Michigan, and I can’t help with out-of-state birth certificates.

“I should have made more friends,” he kept saying. “Then we might have had some help… But Susie and I… we were happiest just sticking by each other. I never thought… I never thought I’d lose her.”

This shy, sweet man got chewed up and spit out by the cruellest vicissitudes of fate. Paul became an unperson, left to fend for himself on the street. He doesn’t have any family left, no one to turn to. Now, without ID, he can’t even utilise the meagre services available to the dispossessed of Tucson.

Paul and those like him are why I so despise capitalism, especially in its American incarnation. Why I so despise every politician who wants to put more hoops to jump through to access any public assistance. Why I believe that healthcare and housing are human rights, not luxuries. Why I do not give a single fucking shit about a millionaire’s so-called “property rights,” knowing that the ten thousand dollars they might spend on a party could be the difference between stability and ruin for so many people of lesser means.

At the end of our time together, Paul thanked me for listening to him.

“I’m sure you hear stories like this all the time… I know you’re doing your best, and I’m sorry…”

“Please, please don’t be sorry,” I begged him. “I only wish I could do more to help.”

“I’m not sure I can keep going, Beatrice,” he said as he stood to go. “I’m so fucking tired.”

The look in his eyes burned with rage and despair. I didn’t know what to say on Friday. I don’t really know what to say now.

I’ll fight for you Paul. You and everyone else who has been chewed up and spit out by the Moloch of Capital. Everyone who has ended up losing their lives to the greed and callousness of the monsters who eat off golden plates. I’ll say it now and with my dying breath, and every day inbetween; it doesn’t have to be like this. We can change this world, and we can only do it by destroying the parasitical, wicked, and lecherous class that holds power. We can slay the dragons of capital and take their hoards to feed, clothe, house, and teach the whole world.

Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the Earth! For justice thunders condemnation, a better world is in its birth!

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