Nov 15, 2023 - News

As Massachusetts grapples with homeless crisis, ID access remains unequal, advocates say

Illustration of a driver's license in the shape of a text message balloon.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Despite recent reforms to the state's driver's license law, some homeless residents say the IDs — often their key to safety net services and other necessities — remain out of reach.

Why it matters: The state's homelessness crisis shows no signs of abating with the emergency family shelter system over capacity. Improved access to state-issued IDs tends to reduce barriers to safety net services, which might give more families the ability to secure their own housing, housing advocates say.

Yes, but: The bill to reduce barriers to IDs for homeless people has sat in the state legislature since 2017.

What's happening: Housing advocates pitched House lawmakers and aides last week on the latest bills, which would create alternatives for homeless people who can't meet the documentation requirements for IDs.

  • Under the proposals, applicants could submit proof of homelessness to the RMV, such as paperwork from the shelter providers or state agencies helping them.
  • The bills would also create a fee-waiver option for those applicants.

Of note: Like the new driver's license law, the proposed changes wouldn't apply to REAL ID applications.

What they're saying: Donnie Lee, a formerly incarcerated man, said lacking an ID locked him out of a lease, a phone plan and other things he needed to reenter society.

  • "Once I had gotten an ID, it seemed like so many doors had opened up because now ... I'm looked at as human," he said.

The big picture: The feds estimate that more than 15,500 people in Massachusetts experienced homelessness on a single night in 2022, according to an annual report to Congress.

  • Nearly half were individuals, who aren't guaranteed places to stay under the state's right-to-shelter law.
  • The homeless population has increased dramatically over the past 18 months as evictions increased and more families arrived from the U.S. southern border, adding pressure to state shelter resources.

State of play: The Senate passed a version of the ID proposal in July, sending it to the House Ways and Means Committee.

  • It's unclear why the bill hasn't advanced, even with leader Rep. James O'Day as a bill co-sponsor with Rep. Kay Khan.
  • A spokesperson for the House speaker's office said only that the House bills are "being reviewed through the formal legislative process."

The bottom line: "We've answered all the questions [to lawmakers] through our debating this ad nauseam over the last several years," O'Day told Axios.

  • "But we just haven't been able to get it to the final destination of having it be passed."

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