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Despite Promises, Province’s ID Changes Hurting Homeless and Marginalized

Government promises action to restore access to services, opportunities.

By Andrew MacLeod 4 Mar 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at

A change to provincial government identification policy last year wasn’t supposed to make life harder for marginalized people, but it did, says Rev. Carmen Lansdowne of the First United Church Community Ministry Society.

In May 2018 the province changed its enrolment process for Health Insurance BC and stopped automatically reissuing Non-Photo Services Cards that advocates had been able to request for the people they work with.

As a result, some marginalized people are facing huge bills because they can’t prove they’re eligible for health care and other services.

“When we first started to see folks come out of St. Paul’s [hospital] with a bill for tens of thousands of dollars, and start getting bills for the ambulance response and things like that, we called the ministry and said, ‘we were told there was going to be no impact on people,’” said Lansdowne, the executive director of the Hastings Street organization that provides emergency shelter, housing and other services to people living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

The government’s response has frustrated service providers.

“There’s this months-long back and forth about them just insisting it’s just not happening, and meanwhile we’ve got collection agents calling our homeless folks because the hospital and B.C. ambulance services just process it like any other outstanding debt,” Lansdowne said.

“It’s all a little bit ludicrous,” she said. “It’s just not a very effective use of anybody’s time, aside from the fact it just creates more uncertainty and stress for people who are already uncertain and stressed about so many parts of their lives.”

The May 2018 change required people to have a BC Services Card or other photo ID to access medical and other services.

But identification cards are frequently lost or stolen in the Downtown Eastside and it’s difficult for many people to keep them, Lansdowne said. Without identification people can be barred not only from coverage for health services, but also from accessing employment insurance or applying for a job, housing, food banks and other services.

The government doesn’t allow service providers like First United to attest to people’s identity or provide an address that people without a home can use to apply for replacement identification. “People use us as their permanent address,” she said. “They won’t allow a non-residential agency to be the address they use for their ID, so if you’re homeless, you can’t actually get ID anymore.”

An ICBC spokesperson said people need both a primary and a secondary identification to apply for provincial identification that includes a photo such as a driver’s licence or services card. The government does allow attestation instead of secondary identification in some situations, but not as primary identification.

Various changes are under consideration, including allowing people to use an address other than a residence, she said.

Changes coming

The provincial government is aware the policy creates problems for vulnerable people who may have no identification documents.

B.C.’s latest budget mentioned funding for people on income and disability assistance “helping them get a piece of ID that they might need to secure a job or find a place to live.”

Finance Minister Carole James, whose constituency office has for many years helped people apply for or replace government identification, told The Tyee she understands that recent government policy has made the problem worse by requiring photo ID to access medical services.

The government is not ready to share details of the intended fixes, said James. “You’ll have to wait for the Ministry of [Social Development and] Poverty Reduction to come forward with a comprehensive plan, but we know it’s an issue,” she said, adding identification is a critical need for many people.

“They can’t get a bank account, they can’t get their income assistance cheques, they can’t get a place to live unless they have ID, so it’s part of the comprehensive look at how we address the poverty issues and minister [of social development and poverty reduction Shane] Simpson will be coming out in the next couple weeks.”

Simpson said lack of identification is a big issue. “We don’t want people to be missing services simply because they don’t have the card with their name and their picture on it,” he said. “We’re working on that now. It’s a big challenge. People lose their ID, and we know without identification there’s a whole array of things people just can’t get, so we’re looking at how we best support that moving forward.”

The government is looking at how to make identification more accessible while also ensuring that the replacement cost isn’t prohibitive and will have more to say soon, he said.

Desired fixes

Lansdowne said she’s glad the government has said it intends to fix the problem. “Any step is a good step,” she said.

But it would have been better to avoid the issue in the first place, she added.

“What we’re learning through our experience is that the government, when they make plans that affect the most marginalized in society, they sort of plan for the majority of the population and don’t necessarily think through what the consequences are going to be for folks who are homeless or folks who might need a lot of support and advocacy to navigate bureaucratic processes.”

Even once service providers identify a problem, it can be hard to get the government to fix it, Lansdowne said.

Service providers have three main fixes in mind, she said.

“Our view is there should be some kind of attestation process where we can say, ‘Yeah, they use our address but they also access our services and they’re a real person and this is the best we can do in terms of saying what their home is.’”

First United and others would also like the Non-Photo Services Card reinstated, she said. “We believe it’s going to solve 50 to 75 per cent of secondary ID problems.”

Finally, the residential requirements should be changed so that homeless people can use a non-residential address like First United or the Carnegie Centre when they apply for identification, she said.

A spokesperson for ICBC said that ICBC and government ministries have heard feedback from the non-profit community and are working on changes to the attestation process for secondary identification.

“Program enhancements being explored,” she said in an emailed statement, include “adjusting minimum attestor requirements to better adjust to the transitory nature of these population groups and expanding residential address options to better include homeless/‘fluidly-homed’ citizens.”

Currently B.C. law requires that the address a person provides be for a residence, though it can be for a friend, family member or other person’s address. “This should be a trusted person to receive correspondence and pass it on to them,” the spokesperson said.

Lansdowne said the different government departments need to talk with each other before making a change and to check with organizations like First United that work with people living on the margins.

“We can usually anticipate what the challenges are going to be,” she said.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, BC Politics

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