One Step Away
The City of New York
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.
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