As part of our ongoing conversation on homelessness, we asked members of the Family Promise network and individuals working to serve families experiencing homelessness to share their personal thoughts and reflections on Family Promise and the issue of family homelessness. These writers are true thought leaders, using their skills and expertise to develop and implement creative solutions that are changing the lives of parents and children in their communities. This article is by Sadie Keller, Affiliate Services Associate at Family Promise National.
Lisa Markushewski, case manager at Greater Portland Family Promise (GPFP) in Portland, Maine, has recently found herself somewhat of a specialist in identification and documentation requirements. This is not something she expected to do while working to keep families housed and stabilized at Family Promise. Her freshly acquired knowledge is all thanks to the families she works with through case management.
Amid applying for housing, acquiring necessary social services, and building community ties, most families in GPFP programs are simultaneously embarking on an arduous and long legal journey. According to GPFP’s Executive Director Michelle Lamm, more than 90% of the families served by the organization are new residents of the United States. Many are seeking asylum from central African countries, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola.
To respond, the GPFP team has ventured into the complex lattice of state and federal laws that dictate social services, immigration status, and housing. “You have to go back and read the rules,” says Markushewski, “and they are changing every day.”
Without multiple forms of ID and certificates, winning an asylum claim can be extremely difficult. To further complicate matters, some families who arrive in Portland do not have acceptable certificates; many birth certificates are impossible to track down, and traditional marriages done in other countries often do not count as legal in the United States.
When possible, GPFP gets creative. They have acted as notaries for at least six couples and performed legal marriages onsite. They help families obtain state-issued photo IDs. Though they leave the legal work to experts, GPFP works with families to prepare their asylum claims through a variety of tasks, like copying documents needed for the family’s asylum application. Claims can include over 250 printed pages, so churches and donors have provided credit at local printing stores to help cover the costs.
T.J. Putman is executive director of Family Promise of the Mid-Willamette Valley in Salem, Oregon. Like GPFP, Family Promise of the Mid-Willamette Valley does not require documentation for a family to be enrolled in its programs, including shelter.
“You shouldn’t need an ID to live somewhere safe,” says Putman.
Before working in homeless services, Putman could understand why someone would live without identification. But he did not know the extent to which a lack of documentation would keep a family on the brink of experiencing homelessness or prevent a family from becoming truly independent and stable. Putman has been continuously surprised by the centrality of documentation to his work supporting families, noting, “You need documentation to open a bank account, to drive, to apply for an apartment, and to secure a job.”
When they find Family Promise, most families do not think to ask for help with securing ID or documentation. They are focused on getting out of an unsafe situation and making sure their children are going to be alright. In Portland, many families find GPFP after an exhausting and traumatic international journey that may have taken months, or years. “At intake, all of the families we serve need serious medical attention. They are deeply concerned about their kids,” reflects Markushewski.
Compared to rental assistance and utilities, documentation can feel arbitrary and bureaucratic. But it has proven to be a necessary checkmark in Affiliate programming. It is essential to bring a family out of homelessness. And documentation brings a family’s long-term goals a little more into reach.
“We could work with some landlords to get a family into an apartment and pay for 1-2 months of rent,” says Lamm. “But eventually, the family must pay themselves. To do that, parents need to have a job or be in training, kids need to be enrolled in school, and everyone needs good healthcare. Each step of that journey requires different forms of ID.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated the situation for families, increasing the wait time for processing credentials and limiting in-person visits at the responsible state offices. In addition to having detrimental consequences on those living in poverty, documentation overwhelmingly burdens families of color. As the latest example, ID or Social Security Number requirements for the coronavirus vaccine have kept some families from receiving a dose.
They may live on opposite coasts and serve incomparable communities, but Markushewski, Lamm, and Putman all agree that securing documentation is a necessary step to preventing homelessness and maintaining a family’s independence in the long run. Therefore, they believe it is a natural part of the work of Family Promise.
As Lamm says, “It is all about setting the family up for stability.”