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Securing Proper State Identification for Vulnerable Philadelphians

The Philadelphia Bar Reporter (Vol. 44, No. 11)

In January of this year, Chancellor Albert S. Dandridge III challenged all Philadelphia lawyers to be of greater service to the community; to provide more than individualized pro bono services, checks and board membership. In describing the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Boots on the Ground Community Initiative, the Chancellor explained, “It is my hope that when each of you tell people that you are a ‘Philadelphia lawyer,’ their response might be ‘thank you for your service.’”

The Young Lawyers Division (YLD) is committed to furthering our Chancellor’s initiative. Prior service projects have included activities with the Philadelphia School District during Law Week, a school supply drive benefiting Turning Points for Children, Harvest for the Homeless (which is a collection of clothes, coats and toiletries for the homeless), Ronald McDonald House (where we cook for families of seriously ill children), mock trial tournaments in coordination with Temple’s LEAP Program benefiting middle and high school students in Philadelphia and a holiday gift drive to benefit the People’s Emergency Center and the Support Center for Child Advocates.

But this year we were called upon to do more. We were inspired to reassess the needs of our community and how we, as young attorneys, can be of further assistance.

During the Bar Leaders Retreat in January, we learned that there is a serious need impacting our impoverished community—the need for proper identification. Most people know you cannot get a job, cash a check, receive medication, open up a bank account or obtain housing without proper state identification. But what we did not appreciate was that many vulnerable members of our community do not have identification—and have no means to obtain it. The YLD committed to learn more about this problem facing our community and, more importantly, to find a way to help.

We learned that this is a massive problem on a national scale, and certainly in Pennsylvania. According to a Legal Intelligencer article published earlier this year, as many as 13 million United States citizens do not have access to documents proving their birth and citizenship.

We also learned that you need identification to get identification. And you need money to pay for it. In fact, the cost of a non-driver identification in Pennsylvania increased in 2014 by 104 percent (from $13.50 to $27.50), ranking Pennsylvania’s non-driver’s identification fee as the sixth-highest in the nation. At the same time, the fee to obtain a birth certificate in Pennsylvania also doubled from $10 to $20. This is money many of the vulnerable members in our community simply do not have.

To help with this problem, the YLD reached out to those who are already doing amazing work with our homeless and impoverished neighbors, and participated in a birth certificate clinic on Oct. 14. Typically, in order to get a birth certificate (which is often the first step in the quest to obtain state-issued identification) an individual needs identification. As attorneys, we are eligible to request birth records on behalf of such individuals. During the clinic we joined with the Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP), PECO, Blank Rome LLP and many others to serve 65 homeless individuals, and process 79 birth certificate applications for 64 adults and 15 children. The experience was heartwarming and extremely fulfilling.

Sadly, most of the clients we saw resided in shelters and/ or other transition facilities. Their stories were humbling. And further served to dispel many of the stereotypes people have come to believe. For example, one woman we met was in foster care for most of her life, and did not know where she was born; therefore, she had never been able to secure her birth certificate. The stories varied, but the message was clear. We were dealing with people who have faced challenges many of us could never imagine. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be of service, and we are grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from and through them in the process.

We would be remiss if we did not thank HAP and its executive director, Marsha I. Cohen, for allowing us to be a part of this important clinic, and PECO for graciously hosting. We would also like to thank all of the nonprofits and other organizations in the city including HAP, Project HOME, Philly Restart and others for all of the hard work they do with our homeless community to help them get identification in order to secure their basic needs.

As Chancellor Dandridge reminds us, we can all make a difference in our community by simply rolling up our sleeves and putting our boots on the ground when it comes to serving those most in need. To request services for someone in need, or to donate to help our neighbors in their journey toward independence by obtaining identification, please download the Donafy smartphone application from the Apple App Store. All donations through the Donafy application go directly to the specified nonprofits.

About the Authors: Maria E. Bermudez (mbermudezesq@gmail.com), an attorney advisor with the Social Security Administration, is chair of the Young Lawyers Division; and Jeffrey N. Rosenthal (Rosenthal-J@BlankRome.com), an associate at Blank Rome LLP, is a member of the Board of Governors.

“Securing Proper State Identification for Vulnerable Philadelphians,” by Maria E. Bermudez and Jeffrey N. Rosenthal was published in the November 2015 edition of The Philadelphia Bar Reporter (Vol. 44, No. 11).