Identification Issues

How can we get the homeless off the streets if they don't have the identification needed to receive services?

Technically the small patch of asphalt where Richard Richards' lives south of the Greyhound bus station across from the downtown fire station couldn't really be called a home, but evidently pallet-made shelters with plastic-tarp roofs can still get an eviction notice.

Richards, 74, made the make-shift shack back in March when the grass in the area was overgrown and the branches of the mesquite trees on the edge of the wash below were out of control. Of course, this was during street car construction. But Richards' home can be seen from the seat of a moving street car, so once the tests were done and right before the street car was open to the public, the area was cleaned up.

Local homeless advocate Michele Ream befriended Richards as part of her work for the Primavera Foundation, checking up on area homeless, especially those living out doors in the washes and area encampments.

She's been trying to get her friend into area social services with a place to live, but one of the problems is that Richards as no identification. One of his daughters was able to help him out—setting up a checking account for his social security check and getting a debit card to him through Ream. That process, oddly, didn't need any identification.

But in this post 9/11 world, that picture identification for helping homeless living on Tucson's streets is one of those challenges that's obvious issue for those who actual want to get off the streets, and even more frustrating for advocates, such as Ream.

Two weeks ago, Richards was given an eviction notice. Once his shack was noticeable, a representative let him know he was going to have to move. Richards pointed out that the little concrete area wasn't even city property and under Rio Nuevo's watch with Pima County. No matter—an eviction notice was delivered nonetheless.

Ream says she's working with the city to put a hold dismantling Richards' little house, while she traverses the bureaucracies of Social Security and identification policies. And no, it doesn't help to hear from the different area powers that be that all she and Richards need to do is go online and get a birth certificate. So, yeah, please stop.

While helping him out, she's also pieced together Richards' story—every one of her "people," has one. A daughter has told Ream that he has some dementia. She was the one who reached out to Primavera and how Ream befriended the man.

Standing with Richards' outside his house, he seems unsteady on his feet. He's eating and has put together a camp-like space under the shade of the mesquite trees. But Richards' has to hold on to the sides of the structure to keep steady, and continues to even while he walks forward to say final goodbyes.

Ream has some experience with the eviction proceedings. Most of the people she works with are those who are far more vulnerable than your average homeless person—those living in washes and camps have either been kicked out of almost all the programs the city and county has to offer or they don't have the proper identification, like Richards.

Ream says Richards was living with one of this children south of Tucson, but something happened between the son and father, and the son dropped him off at the Greyhound bus station in March. She's impressed, however, at the care different people have given to Richards—a woman in the area brings meals to him and he gets water from the fire station. "The community has stepped up," she says. "It's now the ID thing I'm struggling with."

This past August, a new rule has made it so that one can't get a Social Security card with just a birth certificate. You need an ID. You need a Social Security card to get a birth certificate. Someone told Ream that a doctor might work with her to verify his identity, giving him some paperwork to use to obtain an ID. Someone else re-explained to Ream that that just wasn't going to happen, "Hell no.'"

Tucson is one of 25 cities that's part of a national initiative to end homelessness, particularly among veterans, and the city, under Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, is on a mission to address poverty—last census, Tucson ranked 6th as one of the poorest large cities in the country. So how is it working with homeless organizations to deal with the identification issue?

According to Sally Stang, director of city's Housing and Community Development Department, the city has given Richards' more time because Ream seems to be making more progressive, hopefully figuring out how to get Richards' the required identification. Stang says she understands the frustration and the city received an emergency solutions grant and has looked at figuring out a way to solve the issue. Part of it lays with the state Department of Transportation that requires two types of identification be used in order to qualify for an ID--and one of those must be a photo identification of some sort. Other ideas that have come and gone are using finger prints or bookings if someone was jailed--but Tucson Police Department said they go by any name provided by the person arrested.

"Maybe there are more solutions out there," Snag says. "We'd like to hear them."

However, there's a hold on Richards' eviction, negotiated by Ream, but what does Richards want to do? He wants that ID as much as Ream. "I can't even go any place without it. Can't travel."

Richards describes himself as a farmer, or really he was a produce guy in the 1960s and 1970s—one of the first people to help get organic produce to markets in the Los Angeles area, part of an early growing movement. He jokes that for a bit he was called the "Carrot King."

Eventually he got to Arizona when he met his wife. "I met this girl and she said she wanted a family. I said, 'I could help you with that,'" he says, smiling.

They had five kids. The trouble with his son, whom he was living with, well, Richards says his son wanted him to take a shower every day and he doesn't do that.

"He dropped me off in the parking lot here," Richards says, looking north toward the bus station, "with no money. No ID. But I've made a lot of good friends." Looking at Ream, "She's one of them."