This question came from Rae T. via our latest website survey.

Think of how painful bureaucratic processes are in your day-to day: filling out forms, constantly proving who you are, making sure you have the right papers and cards, paying fees, and so on. For some of us, it might be easy – we’re used to it. For others, it takes a high level of ability, patience and organization to not just give up on whatever identification (ID) they’re trying to get.

ID and homelessnessPeople experiencing homelessness often have difficulty getting or keeping their ID. As the writers of the Alberta Systemic Barriers to Housing Initiatives report explain: “Photo identification is required as part of the application process which can be costly and complex. Streetinvolved life circumstances create vulnerability to losing ID or having it stolen.”

If you’ve ever lost or had any ID stolen, you know how difficult and costly it can be to replace these items. For people living in poverty, paying fees for cards is either impossible or not a priority. And the fees can be significant. For example, in June 2014, an Alberta Identification Card cost $51.45 for a five year term. If a cardholder doesn’t update their address within 14 days of moving, Service Alberta adds a $115 ticket. The chaotic nature of many people’s lives means remembering to update an address (if they have one) and avoid a ticket can be challenging.

The process of getting ID itself can be difficult. While it is easy to update ID online for those of us who already have it (as well as a credit card), getting new documents (often without internet access) is not as straightforward. As the same 2011 Alberta report writers noted:

Many people face challenges in their attempts to complete application forms, influenced by literacy, language, culture and cognitive factors. Community agency staff dedicate a significant amount of time helping people through this process. The concern is that people will drop out of the application process and miss the opportunity to access benefits for which they are eligible.

Unfortunately, some kind of ID is required to open a bank account and access just about any social service. The different types of ID can also cause problems, as a 2007 Toronto survey discovered:

Among our survey respondents, 50 percent did not have a Social Insurance Number card and 29 percent did not have identification that provides proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, citizenship card, record of landing and passport. While not having a health card can prevent people from accessing health care, lack of a Social Insurance Number can stop people from accessing income support, training, housing, and from getting a job. Citizenship documents are particularly important, because they enable people to apply for all other pieces of identification.  

A 2004 U.S. survey found similar results amongst people experiencing homeless who lacked ID:

  • 51.1% were denied Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits
  • 30.6% were denied Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) benefits
  • 53.1% were denied food stamps
  • 54.1% were denied access to shelters or housing services
  • 45.1% were denied access to Medicaid or medical services

Lacking photo ID can also lead to problems with law enforcement, with 59.8% of respondents reporting that they experienced harassment or arrest when they could not produce an ID. Another 8% said that police confiscated their ID.

When it comes to housing, ID has long been highlighted as a significant barrier. 11% of respondents to the 2007 Street Health survey in Toronto said they were unable to access housing due to a lack of ID.

To apply for social housing, applicants generally need proof of identity and proof of status in Canada. Each municipality and province/territory outlines what ID they will accept, and some permit letters from organizations or referees – but the best way to ensure ID won’t be challenged is to also obtain government-issued photo identification. Waiting lists are mostly first-come, first-served with some groups considered priority applicants – so getting an application in as soon as possible is crucial.

How can people experiencing homelessness get ID?

A 2013 United Way policy report proposed a number of changes to help people experiencing homelessness in Alberta get ID, including: waiving fees for people below the low-income cutoff and allowing people leaving incarceration to retrieve at least one piece of ID. These changes would greatly improve access for a number of people experiencing homelessness, and are a step in the right direction.

In the meantime, many people connect with housing or social workers at community-based organizations for help with getting ID. In urban centres, there are often ID-specific services for people experiencing homelessness. The Partners for Access and Identification Project is a Toronto-wide initiative that helps people get certain types of ID – mostly replacements. Street Health both helps people get ID and stores it for them safely.

Ultimately, ID alone is rarely a single barrier to housing. People experiencing homelessness in general have “low renter capital” and often miss many of the things that property owners require: good credit reports (or credit at all), references, and so on. It is a symptom of so many other issues related to homelessness: lack of storage, limited access to information and internet, and all the other vulnerabilities that come with living in poverty.

Photo credit: Center for Justice and Social Compassion

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at and we will provide a research-based answer.