New Westminster hopes to continue ID pilot program

The service aims to provide identification documents to the city's unhoused residents

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By Erin Conners

A temporary program by the City of New Westminster to help unhoused residents obtain ID may become a permanent service after it saw high demand in its first two months.

The program helps people acquire and store government-issued identification, such as birth certificates or health cards. Created in response to rising homelessness in the city, it’s intended to assist vulnerable residents who may not have necessary documents, an address or money for application fees.

The pilot is set to end on May 31, but Anur Mehdic, a City of New Westminster planning analyst, said that the city is now seeking long-term grants to keep it running beyond that date.

“It’s been really good uptake and supporting a lot of people in the community,” Mehdic said.

City council approved $10,000 for the ID clinic on July 12, 2021, along with a matching grant through the federal government’s Reaching Home program.

In November, the city sought proposals and selected the Lower Mainland Purpose Society to operate the pilot.

Adriana Mitchell, a housing support worker at Purpose, manages the service. She said unhoused residents who don’t have identification face extra barriers.

“They can’t secure housing without ID, they can’t go to the [Greater Vancouver] Food Bank, they can’t even go into some restaurants with the pandemic restrictions,” Mitchell said.

During a Feb. 17 city panel about homelessness, city staff said the estimated number of unsheltered residents is three to four times the pre-pandemic number.

The BC Non-Profit Housing Association’s March 3, 2020 count found 123 homeless New Westminster residents, 41 of whom were unsheltered.

Governments introduced financial aid programs during COVID, but those also required ID.

Mitchell said that lack of identification can complicate the ability to receive money at all.

“None of them can open a bank account because the closest bank that doesn’t take ID is Pigeon Park [in Vancouver], and most of them that I know don’t want to go to the Downtown Eastside,” she said.

A need for boots on the ground

Since launching in January, Mitchell said 32 people were referred to the program, and she has started the process with half of those.

She said her biggest challenge has been 80 to 90 per cent of appointments resulting in a no-show. As the only ID worker, Mitchell said she tries to be flexible, but that reaching the most vulnerable requires more time than she has.

“We need people on the ground to meet them where they’re at,” she said.

Henry Walker, an unhoused New West resident, told The Voice that he hasn’t used the ID clinic because he is worried the pilot will end part way through.

“I can’t take my cart on the bus, and walking the hill with it? Forget it,” Walker said. “Going downtown is a full-day trip for me, and it’s too much work if the city isn’t guaranteeing [the ID services] won’t disappear before I ever see a birth certificate.”

If the program is not extended, Mitchell said she would approach other service providers to help complete open applications.

Post-pandemic plans

The ID pilot spawned from the city’s at-risk and vulnerable populations task force, one of the groups council created in response to COVID-19. Nearly two dozen service providers regularly meet with city planners to identify and address needs in the community.

“I see the task force as a silver lining of the pandemic,” Mehdic said. “[It] highlighted a lot of dormant inequalities that we knew were in the community, but that weren’t getting the spotlight on a wider base.”

According to a Sept. 13 report to council, the task force has directed almost $1.25 million since March 2020 to programs addressing food security, homelessness, harm reduction and essential needs. Seventy per cent of that came through foundation grants and provincial and federal programs.

Mehdic said there is interest in the group continuing beyond the COVID response.

“[The task force] actually makes our job a lot easier in many ways,” he said. “It makes our decision-making more powerful, more reflective of the community.”

Betina Wheeler, coordinator for the New Westminster Homelessness Coalition Society and a member of the task force, said different service providers working together is essential to making big changes happen.

“The goal is that we approach things as a community and that we don’t compete for scarce resources,” Wheeler said.

She said that while responding to immediate needs brought everyone together, many of the pandemic supports, including food programs and the ID clinic, could also ease long-term community struggles.

“It’s a really challenging, but really exciting time,” Wheeler said. “How do we come out of COVID in a better place if possible, and what do we need to be doing now to strategize for when, all of the sudden, all the funding starts to dry up.”

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