Homeless I.D. Project puts many on the road to recovery

Above: Shawna Ziegler at her job, Cactus Flower Florists in Phoenix. (Photo by Macie Williams) Business News | 1 May |

Once known as “Ma” to a group of young homeless people, Shawna Ziegler would open her home to them, and they would donate $10 a month to stay with her. She said her kids, as she called them, came to her for safety.

For about a year, Ziegler provided them with food and shelter, but she said the state found out eventually. They said she was running a business and committing tax evasion, which forced her to sell her home and live on the streets.

For two and a half years afterward, Ziegler was homeless, living mainly in Cortez Park in Phoenix with her dog, Muttly, and struggling with a drug addiction. On the streets, Ziegler said her belongings were constantly stolen, including her driver’s license.

“It made me a better person,” Ziegler said. “When you see if from that side, you become a more compassionate person.”

Ziegler said she refused to get sober because no rehab facility would take both her and Muttly. A year after adopting Muttly, Ziegler was speaking to her pastor, who she said was, like many times before, telling her to go to rehab.

Suddenly, she said Muttly walked away, had a seizure, and died. She said she no longer had any excuses to get sober. To her, she said, this was a wakeup call.

Once committing to get sober and out of homelessness, Ziegler heard about the Homeless I.D. Project through Project Connect, a monthly event where several homeless services come together to provide support for the homeless population.

Unable to get a job without identification, Ziegler visited the Homeless I.D. Project’s office in downtown Phoenix, requesting both her birth certificate and driver’s license.

That day, she received a voucher to obtain her driver’s license and was able to set up an appointment for a week later to get her birth certificate, which had to be requested from the state of Illinois.

Today, Ziegler works at Cactus Flower Florists in central Phoenix and will celebrate two years of sobriety on May 2. She takes the light rail from Mesa every day to work, and said she spends her commute crocheting scarves and belts for homeless people.

After her time spent on the streets, she said it changed who she was. “It helps me remember where I came from,” she said.

Ziegler’s driver’s license and birth certificate were two of the 15,000 documents that the Homeless I.D. Project provided between 2017 and 2018.

The importance of IDs

Identification bags given to people at the Homeless I.D. Project to keep their identification in. (Photo by Haley Lorenzen)

“The only thing you can do in Arizona without an ID is get arrested,” said Rick Mitchell, executive director of the Homeless I.D. Project.

The Homeless I.D. Project is the only full-time organization in Arizona that is dedicated to helping homeless individuals get their identification documents, he said. It serves the document replacement identification needs of more than 40 agencies that serve the homeless population around the Valley.

No matter how someone’s identification was lost, driver’s licenses, state IDs, birth certificates and Social Security cards are necessary for people to prove they are who they say they are.

Both in shelters and on the streets, homeless individuals are often robbed of their possessions, which can include their driver’s license or state ID.

Sometimes their IDs are simply lost, and many individuals cannot pay the replacement fees. The Arizona Department of Transportation charges $12 for driver’s licenses and state IDs. Birth certificates in Maricopa County cost $20 for a certified copy.

Many resources, such as shelters, require ID to receive their services. Temporary and permanent housing programs require identification for all members of a family, including children, said Kimberley Spenard, an employee of the Homeless I.D. Project.

One organization, St. Joseph the Worker, assists homeless people in obtaining employment.

Brent Downs, the executive director of St. Joseph the Worker, said, “One of the first questions they ask you when you come in the welcome center is ‘Do you have identification?’”

To access a service from any of the 17 agencies on the Human Services Campus, Downs said identification is necessary. The reason for this is so that the agencies know who is there and who is receiving services to end their homelessness, Mitchell said.

“To get behavioral health services you need identification, to get shelter you have to have identification, to get health care services you have your identification,” Downs said. “It’s a vital part of what we do.”

The process

“Our objective is to have someone walk out of here knowing that a birth certificate, marriage certificate, or an ID is in their hands,” Sydney Mitchell, wife of Rick Mitchell and volunteer turned employee at the Homeless I.D. Project, said.

Along with six staff members and two volunteers, Sydney Mitchell works with each individual who comes to the Homeless I.D. Project looking to get replacement identification.

“We’re like detectives,” Spenard said. “It’s quite a process.”

The first step in finding the correct documents is finding out where each person was born.

If a person was born in Arizona, obtaining the correct documents is much easier, as the employee will contact the correct agency where the document is kept on file, such as a birth certificate on record with the Arizona Department of Health Services.

However, if a person was born outside of Arizona, this process can become much more difficult. Many states have backlogs of document requests, and it can take weeks or even months to receive these documents.

After finding, ordering, and obtaining the correct identification, the documents can then be picked up at their location, or, if someone has found permanent housing, it can be mailed to them.

A 30-year history

In November 1987, Rev. Gerald Roseberry said he lived among the homeless in downtown Phoenix and Tucson for one month to understand the plights of homeless people. He said his interest was peaked when he realized that the homeless population was continuing to grow at the time.

During this time, Roseberry lived in what was considered a tent city for 12 days before getting sick and finding a spot inside the shelter.

Roseberry said he would befriend people by picking up cigarette butts and passing them along or playing Hearts with the homeless veterans in the shelter.

“That’s where I learned about the need for identification,” Roseberry said. “They couldn’t even get a job without ID.”

After this discovery, Roseberry founded the Ecumenical Chaplaincy for the Homeless, which would later change its name to the Homeless I.D. Project in 2014.

Rick Mitchell said the name change gave people a better understanding of what the organization did.

Currently, the Homeless I.D. Project is located near downtown Phoenix on the Human Services Campus, a collaborative campus with many partnering organizations working to combat homelessness.

The campus is home to 17 agencies that provide services to the growing homeless population in Arizona.

From 2014 to 2018, the rate of homeless unsheltered persons rose 149%, according to the Maricopa County Point-In-Time Homeless Count.

The rate had previously dropped from 2016 to 2017 but it again rose in 2018.

Problems faced

Mitchell said the organization’s biggest challenge has always been funding. Although since its name change, the Homeless I.D. Project has been able to gain access to more funding.

“If we put ourselves out of business, I’m OK with that,” Mitchell said. “We’re in business to help solve the problem people have with the lack of documents.”

He said the organization has also faced challenges with clientele who have lost their documents after the Homeless I.D. Project has helped them with getting replacement documents. A process has been developed that if someone comes back a third time, they need to come with a case manager to get the exception.

Mitchell also said that they don’t always know what a person does with the documents after being helped at the Homeless I.D. Project. He said that it is not often someone will come back to say they used their IDs from the Homeless I.D. Project to get a job and end their homelessness.

“We have to define our success kind of narrowly,” he said. “Anytime we get somebody a document, that’s success.”

Working together to end homelessness

Agencies such as St. Joseph the Worker, Arizona’s Department of Economic Security, the Family Housing Hub, and all of the agencies on the Human Services Campus work with the Homeless I.D. Project to get identification documents for the homeless population.

Downs, of St. Joseph the Worker, said roughly 80% of the people who seek help from the organization must first get their IDs from the Homeless I.D. Project before being helped with employment.

“We can’t do anything without the Homeless I.D. Project,” he said.

Mitchell said the Homeless I.D. Project attends events all around the Valley to have a broader outreach. The organization goes to the Family Housing Hub, which finds shelter for homeless families, twice a week; Circle the City, which provides healthcare solutions for homeless men, women and children, once a week; an outreach program in Tempe twice a month, and monthly events with Valley of the Sun United Way.

The Homeless I.D. Project is planning to begin programs in Sunnyslope, Maryville and Mesa by co-locating one day a week at different agencies, Mitchell said.

Paying for it all

Not only did the name change from Ecumenical Chaplaincy for the Homeless to the Homeless I.D. Project allow the public to better understand its mission, but it also increased its eligibility for more funding. It could now receive money from grants, trust organizations and foundations that cannot or will not provide money to religious-based organizations.

Mitchell said because of this change, the number of people the organization has helped has increased, as more people know about it and what it does.

As a nonprofit organization, the Homeless I.D. Project qualifies for funding from a number of different resources.

Mitchell said the organization has three major sources of funding. The Homeless I.D. Project receives one-third of its total funding from individual donations. It also receives funding from grants and foundations such as Thunderbird Charities and Bank of America Corp., and from reimbursements for helping agencies such as the Family Housing Hub and St. Joseph the Worker provide documentation to homeless individuals.

The majority of the funding, roughly 90%, is directly used to run the program. In 2018, he said the Homeless I.D. Project spent less than $300,000 on documents, labor and rent.

“We’re in business to help people end their homelessness,” Mitchell said.

The successes

“It is, in the physical sense, just filling out paperwork,” Sean Mayer said. “But it is also giving someone back an identity they are able to actually use and grow from.”

Mayer is the development coordinator for the Homeless I.D. Project. He said he spends his day tracking down the stories of those who are willing to tell them.

A big part of Mayer’s job is social media management. “The reason why we do this is that it helps people outside of our organization see what we do every day and it does remind us that at the end of the day it’s about serving people,” Mayer said.

Kelly’s, whose last name has been omitted to protect her privacy, story is just one example of the Homeless I.D. Project’s work.

Mayer said Kelly was a banker in San Diego and had developed an alcohol problem. He said she had decided to move to Arizona after she realized that she had been in an environment that made it difficult for her to get sober.

When Kelly did move, Mayer said her purse with all of her identification had been stolen. She had been staying with her cousin before she relapsed and had to leave. Kelly attended a treatment center in the Valley and was able to get to a point, Mayer said, where she could care for herself.

Homeless I.D. Project was then able to help Kelly get her birth certificate and state ID. Mayer said Kelly now has a new career path in mind: forestry. 

Stories like Ziegler and Kelly’s are just two of thousands of stories that have been impacted over the years by the Homeless I.D. Project.

“There is this catharsis and this emotional attachment in that you do want to help these people,” Mayer said. “You do want to see them succeed. You don’t want to see them self-destruct.”

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