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Issue Date:  January 25, 2008

The road to making a home

The poor don’t just magically win placement in public housing. They must complete a number of papers and join the queue for the city’s few available places. But that requires proof of identity -- a birth certificate, driver’s license or passport -- items many homeless people lack.

Increasingly they have discovered such a card is needed if they want to apply for food stamps, Social Security benefits, a driver’s license, medical care or register their child in school, said caseworker Dell Mitchell, who processes 50 to 60 birth certificate applications daily.

Over the past five years the Social Apostolate in Chatham County, Ga., has developed relationships with the Vital Statistics offices of all 50 states. Those born in Chatham County have the easiest time -- often getting their birth certificate within a week of placing the application. Those born elsewhere in Georgia usually have their document within a month.

But Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey natives must wait at least two months, Mitchell said, calling the application process for New York City “a nightmare” after 9/11. California birth certificates can take even longer, she said. If a client was born outside the United States, the agency refers him or her to Georgia Legal Aid.

The Social Apostolate covers the cost of the birth certificate, which varies from $10-$40. If a client loses it, he or she must pay for a replacement -- so many of the homeless leave their certificate filed with Mitchell and carry only a photocopy.

Once housing is secured, new problems may arise in the transition. Last winter Mitchell began to offer a four-week course titled “Clean Homes, Healthy Families.” Its students were single moms, newcomers to public housing or those transitioning from homeless shelters to private quarters. Not long after moving in, some of them faced losing their accommodations due to lack of hygiene in and around their domicile.

“It happens,” said Missionary Franciscan Sr. Pauline O’Brien. For those who’ve camped in parking lots, slept under viaducts and rail trestles and carried their worldly goods in a garbage bag, the fine points of housekeeping may have been missed. O’Brien developed the course in home upkeep, funded by a grant of $7,600 from Hancock Family Foundation in Kansas City, Mo. Mitchell has taught the course six times and plans to continue the program.

The 35 who have completed the course have taken home a vacuum cleaner, a certificate and $50 worth of cleaning supplies as their graduation gift. All but one of the 35 passed house inspections. The one whose unit was not up to standard was granted an extension to comply with sanitation regulations.

Besides teaching how to keep kitchens, baths and living quarters clean, Mitchell has also instructed the women on safety issues involving medicines and household chemicals. During the 90-minute classes, they learn how to shop, cook and eat healthily and how to budget their finances.

-- Patricia Lefevere

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2008

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