Infographic depicting the path someone who is homeless and has no identifying documents must take to register to obtain an ID in Washington, D.C.
credit: Robyn Di Giacinto

When Wanda Witter’s wallet was stolen in June, she lost her D.C. ID, her senior SmarTrip card and most of her money. But as difficult as it was to lose her ID, getting a new one was even harder.

Without a photo ID, Wanda couldn’t purchase another senior SmarTrip to get to the DMV Service Center after being turned away from the regular DMV. She couldn’t get cash from her bank account to pay the replacement fee for her birth certificate and social security card. And without a photo ID, she was one of many homeless and low-income D.C. residents who might not be able to cast a ballot this November.

Under current law, D.C. residents don’t need to show a photo ID at the polling place if they’re already registered to vote. But first time voters must show a photo ID or proof of residence, like a bank statement or pay stub, when registering to vote.

City officials are now considering measures to help remove barriers to the ballot box. The D.C. Council approved a budget provision this summer that waives the birth certificate fee for homeless people. Now they are considering a bill that would make all IDs and vital records free for low-income D.C. residents. Councilmember David Grosso proposed these measures to make it easier for homeless individuals to access government services.

“It’s important that homeless folks have access to the ballot, and for me, there’s a lot of areas you have to focus on to make that happen,” said Grosso.  The costs of the immediate birth certificate waiver will be covered by revenues from various licensing and ID fees that were previously absorbed by the District’s general fund at the end of each fiscal year, according to Grosso.

A handful of nonprofit service providers currently subsidize birth certificate fees through drop-in clinics that help homeless individuals navigate the complicated process of obtaining IDs. Miriam’s Kitchen stopped covering fees in January, leaving Foundry Methodist and Chevy Chase Presbyterian Churches the only providers in the District still offering this service.

Foundry Associate Pastor Ben Roberts says that fees are primarily covered by churchgoer donations and are occasionally supplemented by outside grants. To his knowledge, the city has never previously provided financial support for Foundry’s “walk-in ministry.”

Foundry is part of a coalition of service providers that began pushing for policy changes in early 2015. Grosso said he collaborated with advocates to pass the birth certificate waiver and eliminate the requirement to show a photo ID to enter city buildings like the Wilson Building and Vital Records Office. He listed Miriam’s Kitchen, Bread for the City, The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and DC Fiscal Policy Institute as key partners.

The National Coalition for the Homeless is also organizing walk-in voter registration drives in late September as part of National Homeless and Low-Income Voter Registration Week. Locally this will occur on September 30 at 5 p.m. at Patricia Handy Place for Women.

“We need to take it upon ourselves to make our voices heard if we want to get policies enacted that tackle poverty and homelessness in America,” said David Pirtle, public education coordinator at the National Coalition for the Homeless.

While Councilmember Grosso is proud of the new waiver, he said there is still much to be done. In addition to the bill to subsidize vital records, driver’s licenses and ID cards for residents making 200 percent or less of the federal poverty line, Grosso has introduced a second bill that would allow non-citizen residents to vote in local elections. Both proposals are currently pending in committee.

“We have an obligation, I think, as a government, to try to expand the number of people that vote in local elections,” said Grosso. “And that engagement of the public is important because then we do a better job representing the people.”

Colleen Cosgriff contributed to this report.