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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It’s like you belong again’: State agencies helping Camp Hope residents get critical ID cards

“I’m going to frame it,” says Joseph Vara as he obtains his birth certificate and state identification card on Wednesday at Camp Hope. The Department of Licensing and Department of Health were on hand to help area homeless people secure IDs.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Joseph Vara sits in a folding chair, at a folding table, in a big, bustling tent.

This isn’t the type of place where official government transactions normally happen. Vara’s feet are resting on bare dirt. His voice is difficult to make out above the rumble of generators and overall hubbub. Some of the people waiting in line behind him are lying on military-style cots and eating sandwiches out of plastic baggies.

But across the table from Vara is a Washington state Department of Licensing employee with a laptop and portable printer, helping him get the first identification card he’s had in 15 years. The corner of this 2,000-square-foot tent at Camp Hope has been turned into an impromptu Department of Licensing office.

Vara, who is homeless, said getting an identification card will change his life.

He’ll be able to cash checks, buy tobacco products, register a car and go to a doctor. Most importantly, his new ID will allow him to move into an apartment. He’s on a waiting list and hopes to move into a place within the next few months.

The 55-year-old, who was born in Spokane, said he tried to get a Washington ID multiple times over the years but couldn’t due to a handful of obstacles, including a speeding ticket he couldn’t afford to pay.

Vara said getting an ID makes him feel like he’s “part of society.”

“Not a cast-out anymore,” he said. “It’s like you belong again.”

In the last two weeks, the Department of Licensing has issued 150 state IDs and driver’s licenses to people living at Camp Hope, the tent city along Interstate 90 in east Spokane. The state Department of Health has issued 45 birth certificates, which are often a prerequisite for getting a state ID card. The Washington State Department of Commerce is covering the cost of the IDs.

It’s a historic effort.

“This is the first time that we’ve done anything like this, come on site to issue,” said Sandra Najera, the Department of Licensing’s community outreach manager.

Laura Martin, vice president of operations for the Empire Health Foundation, said a lack of identification documents is one of the biggest hurdles when trying to help homeless people find permanent housing. Landlords typically won’t accept tenants who lack an ID.

Department of Health State Registrar Katie Hutchinson, who has been commuting from Olympia to help people get birth certificates, said many Americans take having an ID for granted.

“Our society is based on having to have proof of who you are,” she said.

Homeless service providers working at Camp Hope say the IDs are one example of how people staying there are making progress.

In the last several months, the encampment’s population has fallen from about 600 residents to less than 450.

Maurice Smith, who works at Camp Hope as part of Jewels Helping Hands’ security team, said in an email this week to Spokane Homeless Coalition members that more than 100 of the camp’s residents have moved into “meaningful housing alternatives.”

“Some have left to enter drug treatment, some have gone to transitional housing, some have found permanent housing, and some have left to reconnect with family. But ALL are no longer homeless and living in a homeless camp,” Smith wrote. “We’re moving people out of the Camp and forward with their lives and we’re doing it in the right way.”

An additional 40 or so people have moved into Spokane’s new homeless shelter on Trent Avenue, Smith wrote.

The departments of licensing and health plan to recreate their jerry-rigged ID office one more time on Wednesday.

Najera said homeless people living outside of Camp Hope have heard of the licensing effort and taken advantage of it. Getting a license, state ID or birth certificate is often a difficult and cumbersome process, she said, and people don’t have to be living in Camp Hope to visit the temporary ID site.

“As long as they keep coming, we’ll serve them,” she said.