The following is from Barbara Allen, executive director of Main Street Ministries in Houston, Texas.

As a client once shared, not having government-issued identification is like being the walking dead—unable to access housing, have benefits, or get a job. This is significant on its own, and when you consider navigating policy and the process to attain an ID, it can become overwhelming and feel unachievable.

Over 40 years ago, members of the First Presbyterian Church of Houston were beginning to see a growing population of individuals who were homeless. As they began to minister to their needs, a common barrier presented itself: People needed help attaining a government ID and the supporting documents required. Operation ID began to help and fund the costs to help individuals trying to gain stability. Since then, over 35,000 individuals have been served.

Today, Main Street Ministries, through the Operation ID program, serves over 3,000 annually with ID and birth certificates—1,000 are from referrals, and walkups are the other 2,000 served. Clients are referred from agencies serving individuals who are homeless, in recovery, struggling with a mental issue, escaping domestic violence or trafficking, or reentering society after being incarcerated.

To obtain an ID in Texas you must have the following:

  • If identification or driver’s license expired within two years, one supporting document to prove residency is needed.
  • If identification or driver’s license expired more than two years ago or if someone is obtaining an ID for the first time, two supporting documents are needed.

In other words, you need an ID to get an ID. This alone creates a barrier for the population we serve. This roadblock to move forward is often the result of an ID or birth certificate being lost or stolen due to unstable housing, living in addiction, or being controlled by an abuser. For individuals who are incarcerated, they are released with a prison ID only and no supporting documents. For many, connections with family have been damaged and obtaining legal documents from them is not possible. In addition, transportation, financial resources, and navigating the process prevent many people from moving ahead.

Main Street Ministries became better at meeting this need in our community since Bridges Out of Poverty constructs were implemented, allowing Main Street Ministries to reframe how we deliver our ID services, including creating an environment that facilitates relationships of mutual respect for our volunteers and recipients. Today, appointments are set, and participants are welcomed and offered a cup of coffee or cool beverage as they wait to be seen. Volunteers are provided a Bridges overview so they can serve from a place of mutual exchange. Agency time has been reduced, and participants know what to expect when they arrive for an appointment. In addition, processes have been developed to navigate policies and other barriers:

  • The Houston Police Department Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) can now issue a HOT ID for anyone experiencing homelessness who has had an ID at one time (within the last 20 years) in Texas. They have access to the TDPS database and can access ID records and pictures to confirm their identity. The HOT ID allows individuals to apply for SNAP benefits, it’s a supporting document for DPS and the county clerk offices in Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery counties, and it can be used to obtain a phone.
  • Healthcare for the Homeless is now able to receive referrals from Operation ID for walkups looking for help if they are currently experiencing homelessness. If a client has ever been in a clinic or hospital system in Harris County using Medicaid, they are able to verify their social security number and provide the social security office a notarized letter from the attending doctor to be issued an ID card.
  • Main Street Ministries Operation ID is now able to provide remote services, which are critical for individuals escaping domestic violence or trafficking. This provides additional safety and comfort for victims and helps to protect them from their abusers.
  • As of 2019, citizens with felony convictions and those required to register on the sex offender registry can make a legal name change. Prior to the passing of this bill, a two-year waiting period was required to change the name and therefore get an ID to move forward.

Houston has made national news with the success of reducing homelessness. Operation ID has provided operational efficiency for 68 referring partners for the work of reducing homelessness. Through one full-time and part-time employee, plus hundreds of hours of volunteer support, this necessary step has been centralized to serve Houston and its surrounding counties. This enables other agencies to not get bogged down in the process, and it provides a resource to help people navigate systems.