Not long after a previously homeless Warrenton man got his state identification card, he landed a job interview. Another man finally got veterans benefits he hadn’t known how to access.
Agencies that work with the homeless in Clatsop County say getting a state ID and birth certificate, or replacing these documents, if they have been lost or stolen, is crucial for someone trying to get back on their feet.
“We get lots of requests for (help with) ID,” said Clatsop Community Action Executive Director Elaine Bruce. “It really is a sort of step one in getting people out of the cycle of homelessness.”
Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most difficult steps for someone to take on their own, more so if they struggle with mental health or addiction issues. Few homeless people have all the documentation on hand, and it is a common problem when you are carrying all your possessions with you for items to be stolen or go missing.
Many local groups, while providing a degree of assistance, are often overwhelmed with requests, and have limited funding available. Clatsop Community Action, for example, has some funding for ID services, but often must prioritize people who are already engaged with the organization’s housing programs.
Now they have a new place to refer people to: Riverfolk, a volunteer-led nonprofit that launched last year. Since January, Clatsop Community Action has referred about 15 people a month to Riverfolk to get help securing state ID cards and birth certificates. In April, Riverfolk organizer Mary Docherty announced they’d hit their first goal as an organization: 60 replacement state IDs for homeless or low-income individuals.
Filling a void
Routine tasks that many people take for granted can seem like insurmountable barriers to the homeless.
Try applying for housing or a job without an ID, Docherty and Bruce say. Try to receive mail reliably. It’s not going to happen. Now try applying for a state-issued ID: You’ll likely need a birth certificate. Try getting a copy of your birth certificate — you may need to apply through another state — and you’ll need a state-issued ID.
Maybe you have a phone. Maybe not. At state and local offices, there is paperwork and lines and waiting. Maybe you have access to a computer, maybe you can use the Astoria Library computers and maybe you can fill out the forms online. Maybe you have the stamina for this, maybe you don’t. Maybe you have a disability, or are struggling with a mental illness. Maybe you’ve had medical help recently, maybe you haven’t had it in years. Maybe you have somewhere to sleep tonight, maybe you don’t. Maybe you ate today, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you’ve been carrying everything you own with you, all the time, during the record 171 days of rainfall Astoria has had since October. Maybe your possessions are where you left them, hidden and safe, maybe they aren’t.
In Bruce’s words: “It’s hard to be homeless.”
Early on, Riverfolk organizers met with local agencies, everyone from Clatsop Community Action to the state Department of Human Services office in Astoria. They wanted to avoid duplicating any services.
“That’s kind of one of the beautiful things Riverfolk did as they were creating themselves,” said Nate Long, branch operations manager with the Department of Human Services’ self-sufficiency office for Clatsop County. “They talked with community partners to find where the void is.”
The self-sufficiency office also refers people to Riverfolk now. From Long’s perspective, one important reason to have a state ID is that it allows someone without a home address to set up mail service. Homeless individuals can receive mail through general delivery at the post office, but it’s considered a temporary service and the mail is only held for up to 30 days. If a person receives a service such as food benefits through the state, but doesn’t have a way to regularly check their mail, they might miss a letter telling them it’s time to reapply for the food program. If there’s no reply, the state assumes the person no longer needs or wants food assistance. They close the case. The local office has several ways to verify a person’s identity and get them back in the system, but a statewide hotline intended to fast-track these matters requires a state ID, according to Long.
To set up for general delivery, just about any photo identification will work, employees at the Astoria post office say. But these are forms of ID that the homeless often do not have, and a state ID covers more ground.
There are dozens — hundreds — of different issues around homelessness, said Scott Docherty, Mary Docherty’s husband and a Riverfolk board member. And those issues need to be addressed.
“But they don’t need to be addressed by (Mary),” he said.
Instead, Riverfolk found the particular void that is state-issued IDs, a small thing that quickly becomes a big thing. Grants and donations have covered costs like Department of Motor Vehicle fees while Mary Docherty, with the help of other volunteers, handles much of the day-to-day work of meeting with clients. Many of Docherty’s meetings take place where people already are: on benches or curbs in downtown Astoria, at shelters, at warming centers. Riverfolk doesn’t plan to open an administrative office anytime soon; they want that money to go to food, clothes and ID services.
Brandon and Kristin landed on the North Coast by way of California. They slept in tents and lived out of their backpacks; ID cards were a big hurdle. Brandon didn’t have his, and Kristin’s ID was old, taken when she was sick. The picture on that ID looked nothing like how she looks now, she said, and the ID’s validity was constantly questioned. “A lot of people want to help,” Brandon said about his experiences. But simply providing phone numbers or website addresses may not be enough when the person who needs the help is starting with nothing and living day to day without, as Brandon says, “a safe zone.”
“Some people need the helping hand,” Brandon said. They need someone to guide them through state department phone trees and forms, they need someone to stick with them, which is what Riverfolk and Mary Docherty did for the two of them, Kristin and Brandon said.
The man who needed help accessing his veteran’s benefits? “He needed someone who would work with him, who could take him to appointments, who could network for him,” Docherty said.
Riverfolk holds a brunch every Sunday morning, open to anyone who is hungry. Columbia Memorial Hospital, local restaurants and volunteers prepare and donate the food. One Sunday this April, Kristin and Brandon showed up, this time to return the favor and help serve food. They live in Warrenton now, and Brandon recently got a call back from a job he applied for after he got his state ID.
They feel like they’re finally in a stable place.
The past few years have been rough for relations between Astoria businesses and the shifting, ever-changing homeless population downtown. Merchants frequently called police to report a variety of complaints: homeless and transient individuals sleeping in shop doorways, catcalling passers-by, public drunkenness and disruptive behavior.
Ask police and they will say many of the homeless people that residents and visitors see downtown in the summer months are part of a seasonal migration: people who drift up and down the Interstate 5 corridor, travel between cities, following the weather, getting stuck one place before setting off again. Many have mental health issues, complicated by drug and alcohol use.
But others in this population, Mary Docherty says, have been here in Clatsop County for a long time. Some of them grew up here and they aren’t going anywhere. At this point, she says, these men and women are “our neighbors, part of our community.” The word she prefers is “tribe.”
Yes, there’s some gaming of the system, Scott Docherty says, but there are complex and varied reasons for why a person ends up on the streets. It’s worth it to take the chance and help someone, he added. “It’s not a specifically stated goal (of Riverfolk) to get them off the street, but we want them to get what’s available to them.”
“They might be broken but they want to change their circumstances,” Mary Docherty said about the core group of homeless individuals she helps. She points to Mike, who lives in his car but has no fixed residence. Mary calls him a “tribal elder.” He’s often her liaison with the rest of the homeless community and he helps her on Sundays to set up and distribute food.
“A lot of people feel like they need the help,” he said, “but they feel like they’re going to be a burden for asking.”
The people who come to Riverfolk’s Sunday brunches are fairly quiet. They are there to eat and check in with each other. At a recent brunch, volunteer Dan Peters sorted through clothing donations — piles of neatly folded white socks, T-shirts in all sizes, sweaters — and chatted with people as they stopped to look at what was available. Most of them come here every week. But, as Riverfolk has taken off and focused on getting people the documentation they need, Peters said, “There are probably a dozen people who aren’t here now because they got their IDs.”