A person released from a Philadelphia Department of Prisons facility leaves with something basic but precious — a piece of paper that includes his or her name, date of birth, and photo.
But chances are that same person might have trouble getting documents such as a birth certificate or copies of utility bills that typically are necessary for obtaining official government IDs. And he or she needs those credentials to open bank accounts, apply for jobs, find housing, get access to basic services, and conduct the business of making a living.
Philadelphia is working to address this long-standing problem that has confronted some vulnerable groups such as the formerly incarcerated, the homeless, and undocumented immigrants by issuing municipal IDs, as some other cities have.
City officials had hoped to start distributing municipal IDs this month. But hammering out the contract with the ID vendor, Chicago-based Omicron Technologies; fielding input from a community advisory group and agencies that work with target groups; securing agreements from institutions to accept the IDs; and finalizing the details of the program are taking longer than officials wanted. They now say the cards will be ready sometime in the “spring,” declining to be more specific about a date.
“I can tell you, yes, I was a little disappointed,” said Joanna Otero-Cruz, the city’s deputy managing director for community services, who is leading the program. “But some things are out of your control.”
So the problems will persist for a while longer.
When the city’s prison system began releasing people with its basic paperwork a few years ago, officials hoped community agencies, and especially addiction and mental-health treatment centers, would recognize the document as a temporary ID. Some agencies accept it. Some don’t.
That’s why Bruce Herdman, chief of medical operations for the Department of Prisons, said he is looking forward to the day the IDs are available. He knows the difficulties many people face when they try to reclaim their lives after release.
“If we can have them leave here with an ID, that will be one less barrier,” Herdman said. “The municipal ID is an opportunity to participate in getting the inmate-patient a more formal document that will be recognized.”
The city has hired staff, including a director, and ordered equipment. The city is figuring out how to replace the city employee ID with the municipal card. City staffers have been asking banks to accept the ID and arts and cultural institutions and businesses to add perks such as discounts to the cards.
“So it has that broad appeal,” Otero-Cruz said, and removes the stigma of certain groups of people having a different ID card.
The IDs have been controversial: Immigration advocates say worry about how cities will use the personal information; others say the cards give undocumented immigrants access to services to which they should not be entitled.
Supporters say the cards would be particularly helpful for those who cannot get IDs from state or federal governments.
The municipal cards also can be a step toward obtaining those state and federal IDs and licenses. Many of the people who have picked up nearly 15,000 community IDs in Mercer County since the program there began in 2009 use them to get their birth certificates, Social Security cards, and state IDs, as well as to enroll their children in school and open bank accounts, said Adriana Abizadeh, executive director of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“People just really take for granted what it means to be able to identify yourself with a piece of plastic,” she said. “This is going to be huge for Philly.”
One of the big questions the city needs to answer — and a concern for groups that work with people who are dealing with homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness — is what types of documents would be acceptable as proof of identity and residency for a municipal ID.
Broad Street Ministry, which helps its homeless clients get state IDs, has asked the city to accept alternatives, such as photo IDs that shelters and social service agencies produce — and the city has agreed.
“We see our role as trying to advise the city how these [IDs] would need to work, so they would be beneficial for the vulnerable populations we serve,” said Sam Steffen, Broad Street Ministry’s ID service coordinator.
The city plans to distribute municipal IDs from mobile stations at Broad Street Ministry and the nonprofit Prevention Point Philadelphia, the city’s only needle exchange.
The Department of Prisons and city officials plan to start a municipal ID pilot program at Riverside Correctional Facility, which houses women. They are working out the details.
The Free Library of Philadelphia is working with the city to print library card numbers on the municipal IDs, said Jennifer Maguire-Wright, chief of the library’s Materials Management Division.
Herdman, in the Prisons Department, said municipal IDs can help connect his patients, a typically “disconnected population,” to the community.