Patricia Brown couldn’t prove her identity. On a Saturday morning in May last year, she rushed into the basement of Washington’s Foundry United Methodist Church, frantic that she would miss its I.D. Ministry hours. She took deep breaths as she reached the bright-yellow room crowded with narrow tables, where people sat poring over papers. Without valid identification, she couldn’t get housing or work, her food stamps or medication. She sat in a metal chair beside me, wiping away sweat from her forehead. The volunteer across from us looked concerned as Brown reviewed an intake checklist: Social Security card? No. Birth certificate? No. ID? Expired. “So, we don’t have anything?” the volunteer asked. No. Nothing. I’d seen situations like Brown’s many times. I volunteered at the I.D. Ministry from January 2015 to March 2016. Two Saturday mornings a month, I would help the ministry’s poor or homeless clients navigate the bureaucracy of acquiring government identification. For most people, replacing a lost driver’s license or other ID is an inconvenience but not an ordeal. For Foundry’s clients, however, the path to an ID is more like a high-stakes test of endurance and resourcefulness.
Brown, 61, a former receptionist, had taken three buses from Northeast Washington to the church at 16th and P streets NW, but it was clear she had been on a longer journey. After her mother’s death in April 2014, Brown lost the apartment they had shared. She returned from the grocery store one day to find her belongings on the sidewalk. She had been evicted.
“I tried to … salvage what I could, but I was by myself,” she said. Her Social Security card and birth certificate were among the things lost that day. Since then, she had been floating from couch to couch among acquaintances, paying her hosts what she could and trying not to overstay her welcome. When I asked about her current housing, she said only, “It’s not a good situation.”