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Can Homeless People Get The REAL ID?

Gabriel White
Flickr / Creative Commons
DMV San Francisco


Hey Area is where we find answers to questions you ask. In the years following 9/11, Congress wanted stricter rules for IDs used to board commercial planes. Which is why, almost two decades later you will need a REAL ID to fly domestically. So, listener Mary Rees wanted to know, “Can people who are homeless get a REAL ID?”

The DMV is pretty much the Baskin-Robbins of waiting. They have all the flavors. Here people wait in lines outside, in lines inside, sitting down, against walls. 

So, by the time you get to the window you better have everything you need. Owen Bouchever found that out the hard way. Owen only brought one proof of residency, even though he could have brought more, and that wasn't enough. Without the right papers, he went home empty-handed.

"I own a home in San Francisco," he said. "You can easily look it up online, I pay taxes on it. It’s just very confusing.”

So, if it's challenging to get a REAL ID for a homeowner like him, what if you’re homeless and have no address? 

 “It made me really think about my clients that come through our doors,” said Ruth Nunez, director of a homeless advocacy and support group called the Mission Resource Center. “A lot of our clients are sometimes first time being homeless.”

She says even if they have their personal documents, “Sometimes what happens is that people get their stuff stolen. Sometimes they get taken out and trashed during sweeps. So it made me think about the extra barriers we would create for the population we work for. ”

She asked DMV staff if people without addresses could get the REAL ID. They told her, “No.” I was told the same thing on my visit. Even our question asker, Mary Rees, went to the DMV, and they said, “Uh uh.” So to make sure we had all our bases covered I reached out to a DMV media spokesperson. And it turns out, there actually are exceptions in place for the homeless. 

If you have no address, you can submit a letter from any shelter, employer, non-profit, or faith-based group that vouches for you as a California resident. However, you must still show an official form of social security and identification.

The thing is, clearly all DMV workers are not aware of this policy. Nunez says that communication failure could be devastating. 

“When you create more barriers to getting working documents, that means it’s harder for you to work," she said. "It’s harder for you to move away from the streets if you are not even able to provide your potential future employment, or housing or other places that require you to provide a REAL ID.” 

This is a problem, especially for a city with a growing homeless population. According to the last citywide count, there are over 8,000 people living on San Francisco's streets, and almost a third of them are struggling with homelessness for the first time. 

To understand what that’s like, I went to Dolores Park. I met an unhoused woman who didn’t want to use her full name but identified herself as Jennisa. She’s been living at the park for the last year without any form of ID.

“It makes it harder to do anything, absolutely anything," she said. "Say I want to go buy a pack of cigarettes, and they want to card me. I don’t have ID. So they card me and can’t sell me cigarettes, even though I’m well over 18. I can’t buy alcohol. I can’t go to the marijuana store if I want to buy marijuana. I can’t go into a food stamp place, I can’t go get on housing, I can’t do anything, I’m just kind of stuck."

So, yes, there is a way for homeless people to get the REAL ID. However, between the hard realities of living on the street and the difficulty of getting all the documents in hand, for some people, getting the REAL ID is unrealistic.