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No ID, no rights

Lack of photo identification is a struggle for the homeless and impoverished

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Tucked behind frosted windows in an office at Stanley A Milner Library, Jared Tkachuk is photocopying a handful of forms that will change Saud Siddiqui’s life. A friend of Siddiqui’s brought him here to get help untying a knot of bureaucracy preventing him from moving on after being released from prison. If all goes well, this elixir of ballpoint pen, white-out and photocopied cards and papers will unlock a world most of us take for granted.

A birth certificate, a driver’s licence, a permanent resident card: if you don’t have ID in Canada today, you can be locked out of everything from housing and banking to getting a job. The province of Alberta has reduced some barriers to getting ID, and several Edmonton agencies offer services for those who have lost it. There are consequences for how deeply we’ve entrenched identification into our daily lives, though.

Siddiqui is only 29, and was eager to look for work after serving two years in prison. His driver’s licence expired while he was incarcerated and he discovered that his bank wouldn’t give him access to his account without identification.

Originally from Pakistan, Siddiqui says he has a permanent resident card and a passport, but the police have been holding them. Provincial employment agency Alberta Works offered him housing and job support, but required ID so they could deposit the money into his bank account—money he also needed to buy work boots for a job. Frustrated, he’s come for help at the library.

“This is interesting, too, because he’s not born in Canada, and that makes it a disaster to get ID,” explains Tkachuk, an outreach worker with EPL.

Siddiqui’s chances of getting an Alberta identification card are good because he’s held on to his health care and SIN cards. With that, Tkachuk can verify Siddiqui’s identity on one of the province’s new Identity Certification forms and get a card within a week or two.

 

One or two paychecks away

Tkachuk’s role at the library has transformed from a temporary experiment into a high-profile success, partly because of the intense demand for services like this.

“It’s not difficult—and it’s getting easier all the time—to be able to slip through the cracks,” he says.

With an increasing number of people living from paycheck to paycheck, Tkachuk says losing even a month or two of income without support from family or friends often plunges people from the middle class all the way down to the streets.

Consciously or not, we’ve created a society that relies heavily on identity documents, especially when we’re most vulnerable. Alberta’s income-support system for people with disabilities, AISH, requires ID with your name, date of birth, a recent picture and a signature. If you have a partner and dependents, you could be asked for more than a dozen pieces of income and identity documentation.

Budget hotels, subsidized housing and even the low-income Edmonton Leisure Access Program for the city’s recreation facilities, all require ID.

“The other big one we see is family doctors,” Tkachuk says. “More and more places are now requiring photo ID. That’s a big one, because a lot of people who are on the streets have myriad health or mental-health issues.”

 

Keep it secret, keep it safe

For such an essential item, ID can be surprisingly difficult to get and keep safe. MyLe Le runs an ID storage service at Boyle Street Community Services and says she had no idea how deep the issues ran until she got the job as a first-year social-work student.

“I grew up in poverty my whole life, so it was something that I wanted to do,” Le says. “I wanted to work with people in poverty, people that have been marginalized. So it was kind of my ‘in.'”

Her office at Boyle Street offers a safe place to store original pieces of ID for people living on the streets. Homelessness comes with greater risks of losing ID or having it stolen while sleeping rough or in a shelter. At the moment, Le stores more than 1000 pieces of identification and sees about 10 to 15 clients daily.

“It’s a huge deal losing your ID. Sometimes even just the stress of it makes people relapse,” she says, adding that social workers need to put a higher priority on making sure clients have it.

While the province of Alberta has lowered barriers for those in need of birth certificates and provincial ID, the federal government seems to be moving in the opposite direction.

Michelle Maser is client services program manager for Operation Friendship Seniors Society, based in the Boyle McCauley area. Many seniors misplace their ID because of memory issues and are vulnerable of being attacked for their ID, or having it stolen by friends or family.

Service Canada demands a birth certificate sometimes before allowing access to Old Age Security, for example. For those who have immigrated to Canada and lost their proof of entry, it can take more than a year and a half to get that documentation again and get pension supplements flowing.

“Believe it or not, I have seen a small handful of folks,” Maser says. “They came here 40 years ago and they have this ratty piece of smoke-and coffee-stained paper that you can barely read, but they still have it. They just knew, ‘I better hang on to this thing for dear life.'”

“But if you don’t have those documents, it’s a hold on so many different avenues, and so that’s where we would like to see [Citizenship and Immigration Canada] making it easier, reducing those barriers.”

One of the federal government’s most public and controversial moves this year has been to make it more difficult for people without ID to vote. Bill C-23, the “Fair Elections Act,” is currently moving through the Senate. In the past, those without ID could have someone vouch for who they were or show their voter information card. If the Senate passes the new law, both of those will be scrapped. Voters will only be allowed to have someone vouch for their address.

Maser says that will prevent “a huge percentage” of people in the Boyle McCauley area from voting.

“Just like ID, that’s a right,” she says. “It’s not a privilege of those who have access to the resources and the means to have ID”

 

Hello, personhood

Le says her time coordinating Boyle Street’s ID storage makes her wish government agencies processing ID would lower the cost of applying, and speed the process up. Employees at registries and government officials could also be more empathetic, she adds.

Tkachuk agrees that in his work at the library, he often encounters government staff who don’t treat the loss of identification as an urgent situation. He also feels frustrated that registries don’t store ID digitally, especially in the case of immigration papers.

“When people don’t have ID for a long time, it really reinforces the notion that they’re outsiders,” Tkachuk says. “I was helping this one gentleman who hadn’t had ID in years … and I got his birth certificate, and when we got it, he actually picked it up in his hands and kissed it, and said, ‘Hello, personhood.'”

“What really struck me, is what he must have felt without it. To me, it’s one of those things, you take it for granted when you have it all the time.”

 

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