Being poor and homeless is tough enough. Being poor, homeless and nameless is really hard.
That's why one of the more popular services offered Monday at Project Homeless Connect, the semiannual one-stop service fair sponsored by Minneapolis and Hennepin County, was vouchers for photo ID cards and birth certificates.
Without an ID, it's nearly impossible to access bank accounts, apply for a job or get housing. The issue is especially acute this year, with a proposed constitutional amendment on the fall ballot that would require people to present a photo ID to vote.
About a third of those attending Homeless Connect need IDs or birth certificates, said Matthew Ayres, project manager for the city and county's homelessness office. Those attending the December event applied for nearly 1,000 Minnesota IDs and birth certificates, many for people who lost documents in the north Minneapolis tornado last year.
"At our event, services are relatively barrier-free, but when you get out into the real world, people ask for ID first thing," Ayres said.
It was difficult to tell Monday whether the voter ID amendment had heightened demand for IDs. For most people, basic needs trump the ability to cast a ballot.
But opponents of the measure argue that, in effect, it would disenfranchise those with little means, who frequently move and can easily lose track of such papers.
"It's very important for people to know who you are," said Ben Brown, a homeless Minneapolis man who recently lost his ID, among other things, in a domestic spat, and attended Homeless Connect to apply for a new one.
"That's the last line of defense for us as American people -- our identity. It's the last thing that I have left."
The sunny weather didn't hurt attendance at Monday's Homeless Connect, which drew an estimated 2,200 people seeking a wide range of services, such as dental care, legal help and medical checkups, said Cathy ten Broeke, coordinator of the joint city-county homelessness project.
All services are provided free, thanks to donations from dozens of private and nonprofit providers. Interpreters were offered Monday in 23 languages, including Tagalog (Philippines) and Yoruba (West Africa). Each event costs about $40,000, Ten Broeke said.
The corridors at the Minneapolis Convention Center buzzed with volunteers and "guests," as they're called, who waited patiently in line for ID vouchers and other popular services such as housing and employment.
Homeless Connect originally didn't offer IDs. But organizers found that some people weren't able to get services because they lacked proper identification, Ayers said.
Now Homeless Connect helps people get IDs and birth certificates not only from Minnesota but from any state, said Mike Menner, director for Alliance of the Streets.
Menner had forms and information ready to apply for documents; if people didn't have birth certificates, they could consult a volunteer legal team organized by Faegre Baker Daniels.
Darla Rogers of Minneapolis, who lost her construction job owing to disabilities, inadvertently left her ID and other important cards at a bus stop last week. She felt silly about the goof, she said, but was grateful to get a new ID so easily. "It really helps," she said.
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455