Getting a driver's license appointment can be a waiting game during the pandemic. But there are processes in place for people experiencing homelessness to get IDs quicker, and thus have more access to housing. Photo courtesy of D.C. DMV.

From voter registration to unemployment benefits or food stamps,  government-issued identification is critical for accessing local and federal services. However, retaining your ID and other vital documents is exceptionally difficult during homelessness, when many people face loss, theft, damage due to weather, and other obstacles. And getting a DMV appointment to obtain or renew IDs during the COVID-19 pandemic can be a challenge — some residents have waited as long as 5 months.

“People experiencing homelessness can’t wait months and months to get an ID, because there were people we were actively trying to move into housing,” said Adam Rocap, deputy director at the nonprofit service provider Miriam’s Kitchen. In order to sign a lease for any type of housing in the District or receive a housing voucher, a person must have an ID with photographic identification.

Last summer, D.C. DMV announced that all DMV documents expiring on or after March 2020 would still be valid until 45 days after the end of the public health emergency. But this change only benefits people seeking to renew their IDs, not people who have no ID.

D.C. DMV centers have been operating at a reduced capacity for almost a year. On March 25, 2020, all D.C. DMV centers were closed for any in-person visits. They resumed in-person operations on an appointment-only basis on June 23 as part of D.C.’s Phase II reopening plan. A backlog of appointment requests amassed during the period when they were closed. In November, people were still waiting anywhere between two to six months to get an appointment, according to a Washington Post report.

A search by Street Sense Media revealed that three out of the four DMV centers in D.C. that provide noncommercial ID, driver’s license, and other vehicle-related services have no available appointment times. Only the Southwest Service Center on 9th M St. SW had appointment times, and only for the week starting May 17. That search was conducted after 3 p.m. on Tuesday, when the DMV released new appointment times for this week.

One reason behind the scarcity is that appointments are not being scheduled for beyond the end of the public health emergency (when service centers would likely re-open for walk-ins), the DMV told ABC7 last month. Mayor Bowser again extended her public health emergency order, which had been set to expire on March 31. The new end date is May 20, meaning that all DMV documents will be valid through July 4 unless it is extended again. A DMV spokesperson told Street Sense Media that more appointment times had been released in line with this extension. Since only a few remain, they were likely booked rapidly.

A solution, if you have a case manager

 

Rocap said the DMV moved swiftly to develop a way for people experiencing homelessness to temporarily avoid the need for in-person appointments to obtain an ID. In May 2020, the DMV, D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness, D.C. Department of Human Services, and D.C. Department of Health announced a modified COVID-19 protocol, where case managers for people experiencing homelessness can apply for IDs for them through an online form.

While the DMV was completely closed for in-person appointments, this system enabled individuals who had never had a D.C. ID to obtain a photo-less ID that was valid for six months. The D.C. Housing Authority agreed to accept photo-less IDs on housing applications for the time being, and individuals would have to go to the Downtown Day Services Center to obtain a real ID after the six-month period.

When the DMV began offering limited appointments in June, this photo-less ID protocol was abandoned, but a process to expedite photo IDs took its place.

“Once D.C. DMV is contacted by an agency/community partner with an ID request, a D.C. DMV representative follows up to communicate next steps and schedule an appointment for the homeless individual at a service center,” a spokesperson for the D.C. DMV said in an email.

William Doyle, director of housing operations at Pathways to Housing, confirmed the current process is much faster than the general ID applicant pool.

“It takes about three to four weeks, and you’re guaranteed the appointment,” Doyle said. “Whereas for the general public, they’re overloaded — you may not even get one.”

Reducing barriers to housing

 

Obtaining an ID is the last in a three-step process required to accept housing assistance, preceded by first getting proof of identification, then a social security card.

Proof of identification can be a passport, visa, employment authorization card, or — most commonly used — a birth certificate. If the person is born in D.C., a copy of a birth certificate can be obtained by requesting it from the D.C. Vital Records Division, part of the Department of Health. Doyle said this can take up to two weeks.

Both Rocap and Doyle say the pandemic has inadvertently expedited the process to receive birth certificates. Instead of requiring the individual to go to the vital records office, case managers can now apply on behalf of their clients online and receive the certificate in the mail. This is especially faster for people born outside of D.C., according to Rocap. People may have had to travel to their state of birth’s vital records office in person to receive their certificate, but are now allowed to have it mailed directly to the service provider’s office.

“We’ve had several people where we have not met face to face, but we’ve already completed the process to obtain their birth certificate because it’s remote,” Doyle said.

Doyle said that uniquely among these processes, no changes were made to the process of obtaining social security numbers during the pandemic, but you can still request appointments online and receive social security cards by mail. Pathways to Housing and Miriam’s Kitchen are in contact with a representative at the Washington Social Security Office, and process requests directly with them.

“It actually made the process smoother than before the pandemic,” Rocap said. “Because just having to go to the office, and bring your paperwork and get there can be a big barrier for people.” People already coming to Miriam’s Kitchen for a meal can now work with case managers to apply for social security numbers onsite and receive their cards in the mail.

Only after obtaining a proof of identity and social security number can a person or their case manager contact the DMV to apply for an ID through the expedited process for people experiencing homelessness.

Compared to before the pandemic, there is not much of a difference in how long it takes to get birth certificates, social security cards, and a photo ID from the DMV, according to Doyle. However, there is a marked difference in how easy it is to obtain those documents.

Case managers with organizations like Pathways and Miriam’s often accompanied their clients to the DMV to help overcome the costs of transportation and the fees associated with obtaining documents. And if there are any documents that are rejected or missing, you would have to leave and come back.

Applying online for appointments in a separate pool from housed applicants means that people experiencing homelessness could have a higher chance of successfully applying for IDs within a short period of time.

“IDs are more important than ever in the pandemic. And it’s always a hard thing for people to get,” Rocap said. “I hope we take a lot of the ways we made virtual and easier, and continue after the pandemic is over.”