Attorneys and service providers say the identification documents of homeless people, including state ID and social security cards, are being routinely thrown out after they’ve been in jail for 30 days, making it harder for them to gain access to health care, jobs and housing once they are released.
Upon release, “you have pretty much nothing,” said Janet Kelly, a homeless specialist and senior attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii. “They will sometimes give you a piece of paper with a photo on it, sort of like an incarceration document.”
She said it can take months before someone can get a new ID and it can cost up to $100 to replace crucial documents.
When homeless people are arrested, they might end up having their identification destroyed.
While people on the front lines assisting the homeless describe the destruction of ID cards as commonplace, Ted Sakai, director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, said that’s not the case.
He said homeless and mentally ill inmates are exempt from the department’s 30-day property destruction policy, which requires that confiscated possessions be donated to charity or thrown away if the inmate doesn’t have someone come pick them up in time or pay for them to be mailed somewhere. Inmates must be notified in writing of the policy and have it explained verbally to them when they enter jail. Sakai said the 30-day policy is in place because of a shortage of storage space.
“My understanding is that if we know an inmate is homeless or mentally ill, because they are so closely intertwined, we will hold on to (their belongings),” said Sakai. “As far as IDs and other documents, we keep it — we secure it and put it in sealed bags until they leave.”
Civil Beat asked to see the IDs, but DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz declined.
“They are in a secure location within the facility that is not accessible to the public,” she said by email.
“You can’t even get a bus pass without an ID. To get rid of ID’s, I don’t think we should ever do that.” — Mark Mitchell, DPS mental health administrator
Sakai said that the only time ID would be discarded is if an inmate is released during a court proceeding and doesn’t return to the jail to pick up his or her belongings. He said jail personnel attempt to find the individual first.
However, the DPS’ own mental health administrator said that homeless people’s ID cards are being discarded regularly. After a Tuesday meeting of the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness, Mark Mitchell told Civil Beat that homeless people’s identification cards are being tossed unless he calls and specifically requests a waiver for a mentally ill inmate. About one-third of the inmates he sees for mental health issues are homeless, he said.
Mitchell said he has protested the policy, but was told by DPS officials that ID cards were being destroyed after 30 days to safeguard the department from liability in case they lose the documents.
“You can’t even get a bus pass without an ID,” said Mitchell. “To get rid of ID’s, I don’t think we should ever do that.”
In the past, DPS policy was to destroy all property of inmates after 30 days if it went unclaimed. That was amended in 2011 to exempt identification cards. And 2012 state documents indicate that the Department of Public Safety further amended its property disposal policy to exempt homeless and mentally ill inmates completely.
It’s just not clear if the policy is being followed.
“They get out and have no ID and no health care and now have to spend weeks trying to get their ID reinstated.” — Greg Payton, executive director, Mental Health Kokua
Greg Payton, executive director of Mental Health Kokua, which has operated in the state for the past four decades and provides services for people who are mentally ill and homeless, said it appears that inmates are having their ID cards thrown out regularly.
“It’s pretty much the rule,” he said, adding that mentally ill inmates aren’t being spared. “It looks like a policy that is being broadly used.”
Not having an ID is particularly problematic for homeless people who suffer from mental illness because they often can’t get health care services upon their release.
“They get out and have no ID and no health care and now have to spend weeks trying to get their ID reinstated,” Payton said. “During that period of time, they have no health care and no medicine.”
Kelly, the Legal Aid attorney, said that she has assisted a number of clients in recent months who have lost their ID cards in jail.
To replace an expired state ID card, a homeless individual has to get a social security card. But to get a social security card they have to have a birth certificate. This can be a problem because birth certificates have to be notarized — something that requires an ID, Kelly said.
“Then they get stuck,” she said.
There are workarounds. Some states, including Hawaii, allow attorneys to obtain birth certificates for clients. And other documents can be substituted for social security cards, such as medical records — although these have to be signed by a physician, not just a health provider, said Michelle Ip, a counselor at Waikiki Health Center’s Car-A-Van clinic, which assists the homeless.
“So there are many different hoops to go through if they can even get an ID,” she said.
She noted that the loss of ID cards is happening more frequently because of the city’s “compassionate disruption” campaign, aimed at prodding homeless people into shelters. City officials have been seizing the unattended belongings of homeless people and placing them in storage. They are thrown away if the owners don’t show up within 30 days and pay a $200 fee.
They also must show ID.
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