As the snow falls and picturesque visions of street lights and frosty air fill the weeks before Christmas, the chilling nights also signify the beginning of a hard season for those living on the streets. Though our province has been moderately sheltered against the financial storm, those who have borne the brunt are unlikely to weather the coming winter without assistance that can often be difficult to obtain without proper identification. Our society maintains a view that property ties are a necessity for citizenship. In order to vote, you need an ID and a proof of residence. In order to get a bank account, to deposit employment insurance, income support, or a pay cheque you need an ID and a proof of residence. To do almost anything, you essentially need to not be homeless. But recent changes by the Government of Alberta are an attempt to make it easier for homeless people in Alberta to attain ID.
The changes allow for shelters to be listed as proof of residency, but also put the onus on the agency to prove their client is who they say they are. Jonathan Denis, minister of housing and urban affairs, the ministry working with Service Alberta to implement the new regulations, is overwhelmingly positive about the new process. Speaking to Vue Weekly, he commented that the government has “established relationships with shelters and agencies,” and this process is designed to make getting an ID “more streamlined with a quicker turn around.”
The new regulations break down the barriers into two separate categories. The first is the issue of residency. To obtain an ID one needs to prove they live in Alberta. That barrier is addressed by allowing shelters to list their address as proof of residency. The second one—proof that you are who you say you are—isn’t quite as easily dealt with. The process certified agencies must go through to verify identification is resource intensive. Shelters throughout Alberta rely primarily on volunteers. They usually employ few people to keep overheads low, ensuring as much money as possible goes to maintaining the centres. Unfortunately the Alberta government’s identity certification process mandates that it “must ensure all certifiers are current employees of the Agency,” thus limiting the number of people who can provide this service.
To obtain ID for a client, an employee must work with the individual to obtain primary documents, secondary documents and fact check through “alternate channels.” Further they must also be present with the client when at the registry to get the ID. In addition, those who live on the street are facing challenges like addiction issues, mental illness, lack of health resources, physical illness and, above all, a significant lack of trust in the establishment. This process is asking someone who has been on the receiving end of institutional discrimination to hold on six to eight weeks while their birth certificate and health care card are processed.
Currently, shelters and resource centres are doing much with little as it is. And since implementing “A Plan for Alberta: Ending Homelessness in 10 Years,” shelters have noticed a significant increase in demand for basic resources access. Louise Gallagher, the Calgary Drop-In Centre’s public relations and volunteer coordinator, comments, “For our councilors, for assistance with applications for social services, for clothing, for food hampers, for furniture, for apartments, for things like that we are definitely seeing an increase in people.” A spokesperson for the Boyle Street Community Services says, “I can’t speak for other agencies, but I know we’re going to make the time. We are going to incorporate this service; we already do reviews with those who stay with us once a week. Typically, last night we had 540 stay with us.” This is an immensely positive outlook, as in Edmonton alone there are nearly 2000 people considered homeless, and it is impossible to guess how many of those do not have any form of identification whatsoever. Until this is implemented, it is hard to say how effectively existing barriers will be removed. Denis acknowledges that the new ID is just “another piece of a puzzle.” And the barriers in the new process go beyond the time constraints of agencies; they are also present in the evidence needed for a homeless individual to prove themselves.
There are eight “scenarios” the government lays out that ask for a combination of identity proving documents. Four of these scenarios ask for either a passport or an Indian Status Card, both federally tendered, secure proofs of identification that are legal for employment and banking purposes. Five of the scenarios require a physical proof of recorded financial transaction: bank account information, income tax receipt, pay stubs or a credit card. Also listed as legitimate forms of identification: utility bills, property taxes, insurance documents and landed immigrant documents.
Gallagher commented that, “Maybe the objective of the singular ID is that it is a common card that is used everywhere.” This spurs another concern for Gallagher: “The concern whenever we introduce stuff like this [is] that then it becomes mandatory that you have this before you can get any services. It could become that you can’t go to a shelter if you don’t have a card.” So while Denis is working with the Government of Alberta and the ministry to ensure that a homeless individual is “treated the same as everyone else,” agencies in Calgary and Edmonton are sleeping hundreds in emergency shelters, rooms that are essentially large concrete gymnasiums, and resource workers see the physical effects of living on the streets directly and people like Gallagher are working with them directly. As she says, “One of the things that happens here is that people come to our door, and we don’t ask for ID. We don’t verify that their name is John Smith … because that’s not the relevant part for us.”
Published in VUE weekly, issue #790.