Churches join to offer identification and dignity to Orlando's homeless

November 13, 2008

Survival as a homeless person in America takes more than courage and perseverance. It takes identification. A social security number, a state ID and a birth certificate is a trio sometimes called "the golden ticket" since at least two forms of identification are typically required to apply for a job, open a bank account or enroll in a drug rehabilitation program, especially if one does not have a permanent address.


To tackle this situation, five downtown Orlando, Florida churches -- Episcopal, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Roman Catholic and Lutheran -- have launched IDignity, an all-volunteer organization that secures legal identification for about 250-270 clients each month. Each IDignity event takes place at the centrally located Orlando Union Rescue Mission.

"The unity of five churches working together is what has empowered us to take on this challenge," said Michael Dippy in an interview. Dippy, a commercial property appraiser and designer, serves as volunteer coordinator. Since June, IDignity has drawn between 70 and 80 volunteers from the churches and the Orlando community one Saturday each month.

As the churches began to organize the project late last year, Dr. Tom Bates, a retired ophthalmologist, read about the effort in the newsletter of his parish, the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Orlando, and decided to get involved.

Bates says his volunteer work has opened his eyes. "I now have a better idea of how badly most of the homeless want to work," he said in an interview.

Bates finds the often complicated challenge of obtaining out-of-state birth certificates particularly satisfying. While some native Floridians receive identification in a few hours, it is more complicated for those born elsewhere. "It's a maze of bureaucracy," Bates said in an interview.

"It took us three months to get an out-of-state birth certificate" for a recent client," Bates recalled. "But the other day, I ran into him in the supermarket and he was beaming—couldn't say 'thank you' enough -- once he got ID, he was able to get a job."

Because clients must be turned away each month at the first-come, first-served event, lines begin forming as early as 4:30 a.m., three and a half hours before the doors open.

Dippy estimates that each event costs around $4,000.00. About half of that expense is funded by government sources, with the remainder coming from churches, individual donors and grants.

Grateful clients, and the volunteers who serve them, believe the money is well invested, and that the identification documents are tools for self-sufficiency. IDignity's YouTube video features a client who said upon receiving his identification, "Now I can get a life and get a job." Another client said, "If I drop dead on the sidewalk, I won't have to be a John Doe."

According to Dippy, homeless people who have been helped by IDignity are increasingly among the ranks of volunteers.
Regardless of economic situation, Dippy says, "One of the most rewarding parts of coordinating IDignity volunteers is to see them become advocates for the poor."

Indeed, Bates is enthusiastic. "Because this idea is working so well here in Orlando, we hope other communities will follow suit."

--The Rev. Lisa B. Hamilton is correspondent for Provinces I, II, III and IV. She is based in Venice, Florida and Sandisfield, Massachusetts.