LARGO — A state identification card is needed to attain nearly all aspects of the American Dream — from banking to voting to receiving medical care or securing employment.
But barriers to obtaining the IDs are creating a living nightmare for thousands of homeless people in Tampa Bay, social service advocates say. And no relief is in sight.
The Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board is happy that state legislators voted last session to waive Florida's $25 state ID card fee for people who can prove they are homeless, usually by providing a letter from a shelter.
But members say the law doesn't go far enough. On top of federal requirements that the homeless provide hard-to-obtain documents like birth and marriage certificates, the law lets county tax collectors, who issue the IDs, charge homeless people a processing fee of $6.25 a pop.
"It's preventing people from surviving in our society because (an ID is) a necessity in our society," said Jane Walker, executive director of Daystar Life Center in St. Petersburg.
On Friday, the Homeless Leadership Board voted to draft a letter asking the Pinellas tax collector to nix the fee. But officials in Pinellas, as well as Hillsborough, say they have no plans to do so. The Pinellas Tax Collector's Office said it boils down to finances — the government's.
"We understand their concerns," said Chad McLeod, spokesman for Pinellas Tax Collector Diane Nelson. "We're working with them as much as we can. … In an ideal world, we would be able to waive the service fee, but the reality is we can't right now."
Florida law requires residents to change their address within 10 days of a move. Advocates say ID replacement fees can quickly add up for the poor and homeless, who frequently shuffle among shelters, motels and other temporary accommodations. Police officers who discover an outdated address will often confiscate IDs, though advocates contend they don't have that authority.
Walker said her group spent $51,000 last year helping the poor (to whom the $25 waiver doesn't apply) and homeless gather the required documentation from across the country. Then the group paid for nearly 2,800 IDs.
One of the biggest problems advocates say they encounter is getting birth certificates: An ID is required to obtain the document, which is also one of the major pieces needed to obtain an ID. Paperwork is next to impossible to retrieve from some states, and in some cases people don't know in which county they formerly lived.
Officials say the situation is even worse for married women, who must provide documents verifying any chain of name changes.
"You have to have an original Social Security card and birth certificate, which is difficult when people are mobile or difficult when people were born in very rural areas and had a midwife birth," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, a Homeless Leadership Board member. "They're not exactly sure that they have a birth certificate."
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Who needs an ID?
"There's a misconception among some lawmakers that only drunks need state IDs" because they've lost their driving privileges, Walker said. "But it's also poor people and the elderly who don't have vehicles so don't have a driver's license."
The Homeless Leadership Board also planned to ask the state to stop marking the IDs' address field with the word "transient," a moniker critics say hinders the homeless when applying for jobs or housing.
A Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles spokeswoman told the Times in an email that the state agency decided on Feb. 14 to substitute the term "general delivery."
Still, officials say, the homeless should be able to use the mailing address of facilities like Daystar, which provides mailboxes and offers clients storage for important documents, in spite of rules that define a person's address as the location where he sleeps at night.
Providers from about 30 homeless groups, who met with Pinellas tax collector officials last month, say the agency has been cooperative. Pinellas is among the first of Florida's 67 counties to forge ahead on a plan to transfer ID processing authority from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to local tax collectors by June 2015. The state leaves it to individual tax collectors' discretion whether to charge the $6.25 fee.
Also in a first, to make the ID process easier, McLeod said his office will allow advocacy groups to prepay instead of writing checks to cover ID costs, then supply homeless people with certificates to present to ID clerks.