When Randy McWilliams was arrested two months ago for drunk driving, he had to surrender his driver’s license to police. He car was impounded; he spent 30 days in jail and when he got out, the one thing he needed more than anything: a California identification card.
“Some of the biggest things that I needed to take care of to get back on track is the ID,” he said. “Simply the ID.”
McWilliams couldn’t get to his impounded car without an ID. He couldn’t rent a motel room. He almost couldn’t get into a 10-day sober living home for shelter without some negotiating.
“You can’t do anything without it,” he said.
For the homeless, having a California identification card is key to accessing welfare benefits and getting a job – the start to ending homelessness.
"They can’t even get their benefits because they can’t prove who they are," said Debbie Schubert, a volunteer with the nonprofit Share Ourselves in Costa Mesa that serves low-income and homeless residents in Orange County.
An official government ID is often required to apply for MediCal, food stamps, and cash assistance programs. There are alternative ways to prove your identity but an ID card is the most common.
It’s also one of the first things police officers ask for when stopping people. If they can’t confirm someone’s identity, they can ask that person to go through a booking at the police station to confirm who they are.
“For people who experience homelessness, not being able to prove who they are, is a matter of human dignity,” said John Bauters, Policy Director for Housing California.
The group helped introduce a new state law that goes into effect in July to offer free replacement birth certificates to anyone who is homeless. In January, homeless people will get replacement ID cards from the DMV for free.
But obtaining an ID is no easy task.
Right now, it costs $28 to get a state identification card from the California Department of Motor Vehicle. If you can’t afford that, there is an $8 reduced fee for people who qualify for public assistance programs.
Several nonprofits will give homeless people money orders to pay the fee and a bus pass to get to the nearest DMV office.
Still, you may have to show additional proof of identity such as a social security card, a birth certificate, a military ID card or a passport. Then, there’s the long wait which extends long beyond the hourslong sojourn at the DMV.
It takes at least 10 days to get a new ID card in the mail. For McWilliams, every day without an official photo ID card meant a lost job opportunity.
McWilliams said he applied to several retail stores, even McDonalds. They called back the same day and wanted him to start but when McWilliams informed them that all he had was a temporary, paper ID from the DMV office. McDonald's told him to “get organized” and give them a call back when he was ready.
“It just seems to add to people being stuck in this situation,” McWilliams said.
The state identification cards are also mailed to recipients, presenting a huge challenge to those who don’t have homes.
“I get mine sent to the shelter in Laguna Beach because they know me there,” said Tony Uribe, 51. “I’ve lived there off-and-on. They have a file on me.”
Many shelters or groups that help the homeless offer free mailboxes where they can receive mailed ID cards, EBT or food stamp cards, or simply important paperwork.
The home address on Joseph Atherton’s California ID is 1550 Superior Avenue, Costa Mesa, CA.
“That’s this place,” he said sitting the lobby of the nonprofit Share Ourselves.
Atherton was released from prison about a month ago. He was locked up for two years for selling meth. As part of probation, Atherton must find a job, even though he didn't have an ID until recently.
“That’s why I came today,” he said. “To see if I received it, and luckily it did.”
His next step is to get a cell phone from another low-income program offered at the nonprofit. Employers are more likely to call than email job seekers, Atherton said.
But he’s still not eligible. Although he now has an ID, which is required to get the cell phone, Atherton needs to also be enrolled in some form of government welfare program … and he’s been waiting for his ID to apply for that, too.
“It’s off-putting but you can’t let it stop you,” he said. “That’s why you end up like these people around here … they just gave up.”