With no access to government-issued ID, Tom Brown had little chance to get off the streets. This should be fixable.
KEANSBURG — Just when you think society has become toxic beyond repair, people surprise you. Last week, after I wrote about 35-year-old Matt Mendez living in the woods in Toms River because of the failure of our mental health system, readers responded in droves with offers of assistance and guidance.
One call moved me to action.
Tom Brown survived on the beach in Asbury Park, along with his fiancée Theresa Richards, for four awful years. In September, they got housing in Keansburg thanks to HABCore, a nonprofit that helps homeless families in Monmouth and Ocean counties.
No address, no chance
Brown’s backstory: He was a laborer who lost his job, got stricken by coronary heart disease and went broke. He formed a bond with Richards, a divorcee who suffers from bipolar disorder.
“It was brutal out there,” Brown said. “We slept in boxes on the beach, the kind people throw their lawn chairs in. You spend most of your day figuring out, ‘What are we going to eat today?’ We got to know at least 25, 30 other (homeless) people out there, and it’s getting worse.”
A sympathetic Asbury Park official connected Brown and Richards with HABCore and also furnished Brown with a basic identification card issued by the Monmouth County sheriff. The card is an emergency stopgap — it lists Brown’s health issues and is helpful if he’s approached by police — but is not accepted by banks or the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.
“If it had a raised seal on it or something to prevent it from being duplicated or forged, then it might be useful,” Brown said.
Attempts to get a better ID always met with the same questions: What is your mailing address? Do you have any bills with your name on them?
“No one will accept a P.O. box,” Brown said. “And if you’re homeless, what bills would you have?”
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A key hurdle, but fixable
To get some perspective on the ID issue, I spoke with leaders of four different organizations that advocate for New Jersey’s homeless. They all said the same thing: It’s a key hurdle, but fixable.
“It’s easy to do a background check and find all kinds of history and information on people,” said Bill Southrey, CEO of Haven/Beat the Street, a nonprofit that assists the homeless in Ocean and Atlantic counties. “If they’ve been arrested, there’s a record. If they’ve been hospitalized, there’s a record.”
Arrest records are especially useful, because as Brown noted, “at some point most homeless people will end up in a county jail and will be fingerprinted.”
In his former job running the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, Southrey routinely pumped out county-approved IDs for the homeless. Such cards became obsolete in the security-obsessed post 9/11 world, but Southerly sees that as a convenient cover for the state and financial institutions that — in his view — would rather see the homeless remain anonymous.
“Getting them ID is very easy to do, but those institutions won’t accept it,” he said. “If they accept it, that means they have to work with them.”
The annual point-in-time count, a one-day census of the homeless each January mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a prime opportunity to collect information and issue government IDs to those who want them.
“Why don’t we use that (day) to do something to really help them, instead of turning them back out on the streets homeless?” Southrey said. “The bureaucracy is not about solutions. “It’s about finding ways to not provide services.
“It’s a shame because people suffer.”
‘Just can’t get that leg up’
Things are looking up for Tom Brown. His new address has jump-started the process of getting an ID from motor vehicles, and social security is working on allowing him to deposit that $2,300 check into Theresa’s bank account. He’s interested in working part-time, as much as his heart-related disability will allow.
But he called the Asbury Park Press because of those folks who are still out there on the beach, with no ID and therefore, no chance.
“There’s a lot of good people, a lot of churches, who want to help you,” Brown said. “There are people who say, ‘Do you need a few bucks?’ But that doesn’t get you out. There are people who choose to be there, but the vast majority of people just can’t get that leg up.”
A cheap, wallet-sized card can help them. It’s so simple and so frustrating.
Staff writer Jerry Carino: firstname.lastname@example.org.