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One Step Away


The City of New York

has been


Philadelphia's Homeless Advocacy Project is suing the Big

Apple because of a policy that denies homeless NYC-born

individuals from receiveing their birth certificate.

By Alexis Wright-Whitley

The Homeless Advocacy Project hosted a Birth Certificate Clinic on July 13, with pro bono volunteers from seven corporations and six law firms

and prepared birth certificates for 197 clients.


Photo courtesy of the Homeless Advocacy Project

Photo IDs needed to thrive


he Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP), a nonprofit legal services organization

in Philadelphia, has sued New York City (NYC) for their refusal to issue birth

certificates to NYC-born residents of Philadelphia. HAP deemed NYC’s action


Policy at play and in the way

Helping homeless clients obtain their birth certificates so they can then get a photo ID is just

one of the 50 different kinds of civil legal cases HAP handles.

“A photo ID is state issued and necessary for so many varying things, such as getting into

a building, applying for services, or getting housing,” said Marsha Cohen, HAP’s Executive


In order to obtain an ID, a birth certificate must be present. Yet, without an ID, a copy

of a birth certificate cannot be obtained. This is the catch-22 that many people affected by

homelessness find themselves in.

Because people often do not possess documents that are used to prove their name and address,

they are left without either form of identification, which hinders them from qualifying for

jobs or other avenues of assistance.

Through the Attorney Protocol, HAP makes arrangements for Philadelphians affected by

homelessness to receive copies of their birth certificate at no cost.The Attorney Protocol allows

a person experiencing homelessness to give volunteer attorneys the authorization to apply to

receive copies of their birth certificates on the client's behalf. The process requires attorneys to

gather all necessary biographical information of their client, complete the application forms,

and pay the fees. They also must supply their own photos IDS and law licenses.

Attorney Protocol is acceptable in every birth-issuing authority except NYC. This even

differs from New York State, which accepts Attorney Protocol.

Certificates refused

NYC Policy is what nullifies Attorney Protocol in the Big Apple; it requires the application

to include a current, government-issued photo ID or two proofs of ID for the client. This has

proven to be an obstacle for Philadelphians affected by homelessness who were born in New

York City; they have no proof of address and rely on Attorney Protocol because they do not

have a government issued ID.

Cohen and HAP have seen this serve as an obstacle firsthand for many of their clients.

“We have a number of clients who can’t get into treatment for drug and alcohol issues in

Philadelphia without a photo ID that shows they have a [city] address,” Cohen said. “We

have a number of clients who have been waiting on the PHA vouchers for months because

they’re missing birth certificates for members of their family who were born in New York

City, including one veteran family.”

The NYC Commissioner and NYC Department of Health and Hygiene are delegated to

regulate the issuances of birth certificates and their copies to individuals born in the city’s five

boroughs because of an Administrative Code in the city’s Health Code. The Code states that

copies of birth certificates can only be issued if the seeker has any of the following: a driver’s

license, public benefit card, passport, certificate of naturalization, military ID card, employee

photo ID, MTA reduced fare Metro Card, student ID, or inmate photo ID. With any of the

above proof from a client, an attorney can be issued a birth certificate.

If the attorney cannot include any of those forms of ID with the application, under the

Health Code, two proofs of address in the form of utility bills and a letter from a government

agency can be submitted in lieu of ID.

In response to several failed attempts to claim birth certificates for NYC-born clients in

conjunction with threats of suits, HAP decided its only recourse was to file a lawsuit.

HAP brought two of NYC-born clients, Anthony Green and John Kagain, who were refused

birth certificates to serve as plaintiffs in the case. HAP has approximately 55 open cases for

those whom it was not able to get birth certificates for from NYC.

“[Green and Kagain] have very clear cases,” Cohen said as to how HAP chose them to serve

as Plaintiffs in the suit. “They’re really compelling, and we are still in touch with them. So

many of the folks who can’t get services kind of float in and out of our contact. These two

guys, when we were actually putting our complaint together, were very much in constant

contact with us and eager for us to move the litigation forward.”

Green, 57, was born in the Bronx and moved to Philadelphia when he was 5-years-old.

Homelessness became a factor in his life when his house burned down. In the fire, his