How Do You Get an ID When You Have No Home? | Connecticut Public Radio
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How Do You Get an ID When You Have No Home?

Apr 1, 2015

Sal Pinna on his way to the Social Security office in Hartford.
Credit Susan Campbell / WNPR
A team keeps a list of homeless clients, what identification they have, and what they need.

It was a bitter cold Friday in March, and Sal Pinna was heading into the wind on Main Street in Hartford.

"Cold enough, but I don't feel a thing," Pinna said. "I guess I’m used to it."

Pinna, a Long Island native, has been homeless for 20 years in Connecticut, but he wants very much to get an apartment. He has in his backpack a xeroxed copy of his birth certificate – but that’s not good enough for official paperwork. Without proper identification, Pinna is stuck in shelters, or worse.

For a while, Pinna slept rough, out on the streets in the cold and wind. He doesn’t want to do that again.

On this day, Pinna was heading to the Social Security office in Hartford’s graceful old G. Fox building to apply for a Social Security card. He needed adequate identification in order to be housed. He needed to be what advocates call “document-ready.”

This, Pinna said, was his third time going to the office.

After waiting his turn, a polite woman called Pinna back to her desk. She listened to Pinna’s frustrated retelling of his inability to get a card. She explained that he should have received his replacement card weeks ago. When he told her he'd been living in a shelter, she said the card may have been mailed there, but not forwarded to him. She suggested he start the process again.

An hour later, Pinna left without a Social Security card, though he did get the process going. He was told he must return to a clinic he visits, and get a proof of identification there. He promised to do so.

Heather Pilarcik is the service coordinator at South Park Inn in Hartford.
Credit Susan Campbell / WNPR
"This type of intervention is really life-changing and potentially life-saving."
Heather Pilarcik

Heather Pilarcik is South Park Inn’s service coordinator for women and families, and team leader for the Greater Hartford 100-day challenge team.

"It becomes very difficult to get one type of document if you don't have any other documents," Pilarcik said. "So if someone has had their wallet lost or stolen, and you imagine having to replace all of those things, where do you start? If it’s been years since you’ve had any kind of  a photo identification, or a permanent address; if you’re not in touch with family members that may be able to get that type of document for you. It’s very difficult to start at square one, and prove that you are who you say you are."

Pinna is not alone in his frustration to prove he is who he says he is.

The leadership team of the 100-day challenge has a spreadsheet with clients, what identification they have, and what they need.

This is a new approach. The team knows these people who are homeless, and they know them by name.

"The hope is that for those folks that are the most vulnerable, this type of intervention is really life-changing and potentially life-saving," said Pilarcik. "Many of these folks experience very significant physical or mental illnesses. They’ve been involved in very risky and dangerous behaviors that are most likely to result in some sort of trauma or potential loss of life to them. We think it’s important to address those needs and to make sure that those people are taken care of."

Given the importance of identification, the Hartford team also set the goal of getting 200 people document-ready. Organizers are planning what they’re calling a document fair in May that will include people from Social Security, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and other places, who will devote a day to getting people -- some of whom have been off the grid for decades -- the proper identification. The fair is an innovative way to deal with a long-time snag in the system: getting people IDs.

Pilarcik said the 100 days are meant to inspire working together in a way that best serves her clients, and "can really assist folks in transitioning from homelessness into permanent housing as quickly as possible."

Sal Pinna with his Social Security card.
Credit Susan Campbell / WNPR

Meanwhile, Pinna got his Social Security card. He was working on getting more important paperwork completed, including a five-page document that verifies that he is, in fact, homeless.

His texts came in frequently:

How long will it take til I get my own place?

I have to get out of this place

I want to live normal again.

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Susan Campbell was a long-time columnist at The Hartford Courant. She's also the author of the biography, Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker, and the memoir, Dating JesusFor the next few months, Campbell and WNPR will follow the progress of Sal Pinna and the 100-day challenge. See Campbell's previous story, "Homeless in Greater Hartford: Meet Sal Pinna."