More than 100 people stand in one of two lines across the street from Family Court at 19th and Vine streets. Most of them are homeless. Some of them are there to receive a free meal from the few volunteers set up near the courthouse. On the other side of the lawn, toward the Ben Franklin Parkway, there’s a group congregated around a man wearing a red Philadelphia Kixx T-shirt, holding a clipboard. He’s Adam Bruckner, and he’s been coming here with the goal of getting the homeless IDs for the past 10 years.
“Years ago, I used to ask homeless guys, ‘Why don’t you get a job?’” says Bruckner, after he signs a $13.50 check and hands it to a tall, bearded man who just proved his identity by showing two prescription drug bottles bearing his name. “And they said, ‘It’s because we can’t get IDs.’”
So Bruckner, 37, decided to help. When he started out, he was just a young guy with a clipboard who gave money out of his own pocket. But within weeks, he said, word spread that there was someone in Philadelphia looking to get poor and homeless people identification so they could get jobs, cash checks and vote. Hundreds of people began coming to him every Monday at the Vine Street location. Today, the Parkway meet-up is a charitable nonprofit called Philly Restart operating with $60,000—most of which is spent in the form of checks written for $13.50, the amount required to get a state ID from PennDOT.
“Now, many of the shelters and halfway houses in the city will refer their clients straight here,” he says, adding that he sees hundreds of people each week, and there is no universal story of the types of people who need IDs.
With all the talk about the working poor and elderly being denied access to the polls due to the new voter-ID law, the homeless have been almost universally ignored in the debate. When Philadelphia Weekly first reported on this issue in June 2011, we noted that Project H.O.M.E. objected to the bill, saying it put up major roadblocks for those who were rebuilding their lives and had the eventual goal of obtaining an ID. Since then, of course, the law has passed, and the debate over its necessity, its usefulness and its legality is stronger than ever.
Bruckner notes how excited he was when he first heard about the bill. “I thought maybe that would help take care of some things,” he says, “but it’s made things more complicated … it seems like there’s this big miscommunication about who could get [identification] and when they could get it … it hasn’t dropped my numbers at all.”
And he has no way of knowing how many people he’s seen have, or even need ID. Usually, he says he recognizes only a couple faces in the crowd, and only knows one person, Tyson (the first homeless man he helped), by name. The rest, he says, are first-timers.
One man, wearing a white undershirt and white sneakers, says Bruckner has already helped him get a birth certificate, but isn’t sure about his next step. “I was locked up [in prison] for five years,” says the man, who did not give his name. “[And when I got out], they don’t tell you that you need a new ID when you get out … the jail is overcrowded and basically they got nowhere to put people, it’s bullshit.” He says he needs an ID for “a job, voting, all that.”
Another man, skinny, bearded and with acne scars dotting his face, says he doesn’t have a referral letter because he can’t get into the methadone clinic at 8th Street and Girard Avenue. He gives Bruckner a pill bottle to prove his name; Bruckner signs a check for $13.50 and sends him on his way.
“Either [the people here] never had [identification], or they’re in a high-risk situation where they live in a shelter and you go to the bathroom and your stuff gets stolen. Or you’re in jail and [they lose their things upon getting released],” Bruckner says, adding that, for the homeless population, holding on to IDs—expired or nonexpired—can be very difficult. And Pennsylvania law does not allow people to acquire a new copy of their previously issued ID unless they have documentation backing up who they are—and many who lose their ID or have had it stolen can’t.
“We think because there are 250 people sleeping on the streets of Philadelphia, then there are 250 homeless people living in Philadelphia,” Bruckner says. “That’s totally erroneous. If you consider the shelters, the numbers in rehab, halfway houses, the number goes into the thousands really easily,” he says. “If the problem were as easy as 250 people on the Parkway, you could open a 300-bed place and end homelessness. That’s not the way it is. So it’s the same thing with the ID. It’s not like you can get these 250 people an ID and say everyone has an ID. It’s literally thousands and thousands of people every year.”
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe says he’s doing it for the patriots among us. This, he says, is why House Bill 934—the Pennsylvania Voter Identification Protection Act, which requires all Keystone State citizens to show ID at their respective polling places—needs to pass.