Brian Mobley knows who he is. Proving that has been a nightmare.
He’s a musician. Brian is an expert in all kinds of construction. He’s a son and a father, a rabid XBox player and a recovering opioid addict. He’s a friend.
Those things are easy for Brian to prove. But for the past few years, he’s been unable to persuade the State of Colorado that he and his name are one in the same.
A lot of that problem comes from Brian being homeless.
He counts himself among the thousands of people in Colorado, some homeless, some not, who couldn’t get what is arguably the key to civilization as we know it: identification. Despite years of determined attempts, he wasn’t able to get a Colorado ID or a driver license.
“I’ve tried for about five years,” Brian said.
He’s not alone. Colorado, and especially the metro area, is rife with agencies and people dedicated to shepherding thousands of people each year through a maze that was created to keep the “wrong” people from getting IDs. In a post Sept. 11 America, the laws regulating who can and can’t be granted a state ID were shaped in part by lawmakers who often frown on foreigners. At best, they’re seen as a nuisance. At worst, they’re potential terrorists. The result is actually two programs in Colorado awarding dedication, one for “legal” residents and another for those who will never be able to click all the boxes indicating citizenship. One activist called it the state’s “apartheid” system.
While you may not flash your driver license much in a world of online shopping and payment apps, I can guarantee you that it is the very key to everything you need and want when things are going right. That ID is a matter of life and death when things go very wrong.
In talking with some of the troops who work every day to connect all kinds of non-conforming people to their names and the government, they agreed that Brian’s quagmire is a good illustration of what thousands of other people also face. A trope that has rang true since 9/11 is, “you have to have an ID to get an ID.”
Up until a few days ago, Brian had been my next-door neighbor for almost a year.
While we were all suffering the shell-shock of an honest-to-god-pandemic raining hellfire upon us all, I barely noticed a dilapidated motor home that pulled up in the back of the house next to mine. I could see the top of the contraption over our adjoining fence. Through the cracked windshield, there was often what looked like a stuffed dog on the dash. It occasionally came to life and barked at me while I huffed trash out the back gate.
My neighbors, like me, come from working families. They’re caring, fun people, some of whom have serious struggles. So the visiting motor-clunker didn’t draw much attention or alarm.
It did, however, when I saw this barge-sized thing parked on a street a couple blocks from home. A few days later, the city towed it off, and the pandemic began to rage.
Some of the adult kids came home to the house next door as the seriousness of the virus crisis became clear. An SUV broke down and got pushed back from the alley into their backyard, and everyone hunkered down inside for the worst.
One night in early June, it looked like someone was watching a wide-screen TV in the broken down car. After a few days, I realized someone was living in it.
When I went around the alley after a few days to see for myself what was up, I met Brian’s best friend, Bristol. Bristol can be a surly Chihuahua mix with an intimidating lurch, ferocious bark and nasty snarl. She charged me, snapping viciously while a disheveled man with one arm clambered out of the car, scolding the dog in an almost comical tirade. A few people around me were certain I was going to get bitten. The standoff ended. The man went back inside the car with the dog. I went home and walked around front to ask my neighbors what’s up.
That was Brian, they said. A friend. It was his motorhome that broke down, got towed and he was without a place to stay in the pandemic.
And we all moved on.
Over the next few weeks, we saw Brian traipse occasionally in and out of the house. The big TV screen glowed through the car windows late into the night, every night, as he played video games and yelled drolly at Bristol as she would chase some new victim down the alley.
It was all background noise to the overwhelming stay-away shock of the pandemic, race riots and wondering every day if The Sentinel would stay alive, or if any of us would.
Brian and I would occasionally meet by chance on the side of our two houses. He nodded when I said, “hi,” but he kept his head down. Bristol would snarl lightly. Brian would shake his head and bark back at her. He looked gaunt and ashen.
Denver’s notorious desert heat came, and I told my neighbors I was worried about Brian, whom I’d never really met at this point. My fear was he’d die in that car-oven. They let him move up to a partially enclosed front porch, a few feet from ours.
The proximity led to conversations about his damn dog and how he came to live in a broken down car and then a front porch during a pandemic.
Brian had been a successful construction company owner in eastern Ohio. He’d grown up in a small town in a large family, who were all musicians.
When he was about 40, he was atop a metal building he was working on. A three-story fall nearly killed him. He came-to in a hospital, being treated for a broken face, back, shoulders and legs.
“I seen my skull,” he told me once. The university hospital he was taken to had used a technique where his face was peeled back from his skull so metal parts could be installed to repair damage. They filmed the process, and later, he watched it.
“It was so wrong,” he said with a laugh. Despite a cavalcade of tragedy, Brian laughs a lot.
We compared stories about being rotten kids in small towns.
I told him about nearly crushing my shoulder as a kid in Manzanola when I stood against a tree while shooting a shotgun so it wouldn’t kick so bad. My shoulder still hurts.
That was the first time he called me “Hillbilly.” I told him I never heard of anyone from Ohio that sounded like they were off of a Kentucky holler. In his thick twang, he taught me about the Ohio border area and what his life was like there.
Through a wrought iron gate, I learned about the time he was 10 years old and he and two buddies were messing around with a shotgun while one of the boy’s parents were at work. His friend pointed the gun from person to person in jest. He shot dead the other pal after accidentally firing the gun toward the kid’s face. Brian was just a couple feet away.
“I can still hear the blast,” he said.
He survived and thrived somehow. His family was close and all musically talented. Two brothers have become solid songwriters and performers. He grew up partying hard, becoming kind of a bully, he said. He married. He had two boys. He worked his “ass off every day” while amassing a construction business.
That was, until the fall. After weeks of hospitalization, addiction to prescribed opiate pain killers came fast and easy. When his doctors cut him off, he went to different doctors. He got caught and was convicted of doctor shopping and prescription fraud.
Out of jail, he joined the hundreds of thousands of American opioid addicts each year who turn to cheap, plentiful and accessible heroin. He started losing parts of his business, and then all of it.
Addicted to snorting heroin, he was still able to get a job with a national construction firm, based on his past reputation. They flew him to Denver, provided him a condo and a car. He provided the heroin himself.
Instead of the preferable midwest powder he was used to, all he could find here was the western “black tar” variety. Desperate for a fix, he quickly learned to shoot it.
Within a few months, after being a key asset to his company, he was fired, hooked, homeless and broke. That was about six years ago.
Brian agrees with what so many others have said. Heroin doesn’t just become the most important thing in your life, it becomes the only thing.
For a few years, he was in and out of moderate to severe addiction. That led to two possession charges here in Colorado, jail and then probation. In 2018, he was moved from a metro area jail to a hospital because of an infection in his arm, caused by his heroin injections. They loaded him with antibiotics and sent him back to his cell.
He got out, but a few months later, still using, he was picked up on a probation violation. While jail workers were processing him, someone noticed his arm. They sent him straight to an emergency room. The infection was now in his bone marrow. He lost his right, dominant arm. His rehab was in jail.
Brian got out and went back to using. He managed to get an apartment in Commerce City. One night, someone broke in and beat him badly, his puppy, Bristol, savagely attacked Brian’s attackers, and they fled. To this day, the dog fiercely guards Brian.
Months went by. Brian began couch surfing. He was essentially forced into treatment to avoid prison. He started methadone treatment just as the pandemic started, and, after losing the motorhome, he moved into the broken down car in my neighbor’s backyard.
He hated the methadone and had no practical way to get to dosing centers, he said. He felt high and miserable at the same time. So he went cold turkey off the methadone and heroin in the back of a hot car during a deadly Denver heat wave. Meanwhile, I, and the rest of us, went about the business of the pandemic.
By the time he moved up to the front porch, he said he was sober but dazed. He’d lost nearly a decade of his life and his right arm.
Brian would lose even more.
Not only was there a broken down SUV in the backyard of my neighbor’s house, but there had for a few years been a 26-foot travel trailer, too. Someone else had stayed in it a few months back until the city code enforcers came by and said they can’t have anyone living in it. It had sat vacant since. My neighbor sold it to Brian for $1,000, which his family sent money for.
“That’s really good news,” I said, during one of our porch sessions. His plan was to get back there and fix it up, tow it to an RV park somewhere, wait out his Colorado probation and then get home to Ohio to his mom and chance at a new life. If the end of probation was years off, he would ask to have it moved to Ohio, so he could just get back to his family. He said he’d had enough. He’d lost enough. He wanted to go home.
It was fall, Bristol and I were now tolerating each other at that point as we’d all gab on our porches in the evenings.
Just days later, he told me he needed to find a way to the airport. His 26-year-old son had been killed in a boat crash in Ohio. There would be a funeral.
It’s hard to describe how someone so devastated by their life could be crushed even further. Brian’s wide, blue eyes, thick with grief, gave up the story.
He didn’t want his family or friends to see him armless and hapless. He was given a private viewing while the rest of the town and family attended a regular funeral later.
He came back to Denver, ruined over the loss of his son. Just days later, his father became critically ill with COVID-19, which he apparently had contracted at the funeral. He, too, died shortly after.
The cold weather began to set in with a resurgence of the pandemic here in the metro area. Brian cleaned debris out of the trailer and moved in, without heat or running water.
I hadn’t seen Brian for a couple of weeks and thought he’d found a way to get around his probation and go home for Christmas.
No. Depressed, he’d hunkered down in the growing cold and dark.
I found this out because the city code violation inspectors were back just after the first of the year. The trailer had to go.
He told me that he couldn’t get the trailer towed off because he couldn’t get license plates, because he didn’t have a title. My neighbor had sold him the trailer, but the title was lost. He had days to get it resolved and out of the yard. He didn’t know where to begin.
“That I can help with,” I said assuredly. In a classic hold-my-beer moment, I explained to Brian that if there’s one thing a reporter is good for, it’s tenacity and being able to root out the goods from a government bureaucracy. “I got this.”
I was a fool.
That was Jan. 6, 2021. Brian finally waved goodbye to his trailer, cash in hand, just last weekend.
It was the beginning of an odyssey affecting thousands of people in Colorado, many of them homeless and helpless.
Getting a clear title wasn’t too hard. I tracked it back to the guy who sold the trailer to my neighbor about five years ago, Billy. Unable to get into a DMV because of the pandemic, I was able to order a duplicate title and had it sent to Billy’s house. While the city kept delivering vacate the damn trailer or else notices, I had my neighbor bug Billy every day for more than a week until he got it in the mail. He helpfully signed it and brought it over for Brian. We got a bill of sale in order and figured Brian would be on his way. It was the middle of January now.
It turns out, you can’t title an RV without an ID or a power of attorney.
Brian had a driver’s license from Ohio, but it expired about four years ago, and he’d since lost it, he said, possibly when the motorhome was towed off and impounded by the city.
I got on the phone and into the depths of the state internet to find out how to get an expired replacement ID from another state.
No can do.
It’s no joke in saying that to get an ID in Colorado, you need one.
If you’ve lost your driver license, it’s an inconvenience, especially since the pandemic has forced Department of Motor Vehicle offices to run on an appointment-only basis.
With a few clicks of the keyboard, however, your credit card, and the time to decipher exactly what the DMV is asking for, a replacement arrives in the mail after several days.
But if you don’t have a keyboard, a credit card, an already valid ID or driver license and an address, this is going to be really, really hard.
This all became so difficult back in 2005, after Congress passed the Real ID Act, said Chaer Robert, legislative director for Colorado Center on Law and Policy, an activist group focusing on health, housing and other social equity issues in Colorado.
The focus of the act was national security. For generations, state-issued IDs and driver licenses were a hodgepodge of designs and systems, with virtually no coordination. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the need for uniformity and accountability was deemed in the national interest. With no national ID, coordinated driver licenses with a baseline of requirements became law. U.S. Passports are travel documents, not created to be a way of certifying identification.
The law was created with grid-dwelling American citizens in mind. Left out were those who lived “off the grid” or who have lived with a peculiarity, even as a typical American.
Robert’s own husband was an early casualty of the Real ID Act’s shortcomings, she said. In 2006, state legislators — led by then-GOP state Sen. John Andrews — created Colorado’s version of the Real ID program. Lawmakers were suspicious of anyone who didn’t fit the bill as a “regular” person. Those people were precluded from walking in with a few items and walking out with a driver license.
Robert and her husband had been told while traveling in 2007 that the driver license he’d had for years was getting kind of ratty. To keep from getting held up at an airport, even with a passport, he’d better get a new one.
“We ended up spending $1,300 over eight months to make it happen,” she said. “And it’s not like my husband’s case was some weird kind of exotic story. He was born and raised in Pueblo (Colorado).”
Even though he had kept a valid driver license his entire adult life, he was forced through the state DMV “Exceptions Program” maze because of official-name confusion and not having a birth certificate at his fingertips. His surname was the same he’d always used and what appeared on his driver license, but his birth certificate had his middle and given name reversed. He found out then for the first time, as an adult, what his “legal” first name really was.
It wasn’t difficult for the U.S. Department of State to figure out, Robert said. During a phone conversation with a passport technician, they went through the documents there and got it. Passport granted.
Colorado driver license? Not so fast. Under the new state and federal laws, her husband couldn’t get a duplicate birth certificate, required to get a driver license, because he didn’t have a driver license. Under the law, Robert had to order the replacement birth certificate for him.
After months of trading documents and messages with state DMV officials, he was able to get the real deal.
Robert said she appreciated the fact that the process can become comically exasperating to someone who doesn’t desperately need an ID. But for those who don’t have the time, patience, resources and connections, it can become a living nightmare.
Brian was living the nightmare. By some miracle, he had an original birth certificate, an original Social Security card, an address to get mail sent to, and he had me. That’s rarely the case for thousands of people desperate for an ID, said Casey Sherman, supervising attorney for Colorado Legal Services. She’s part of a consortium of organizations focusing on helping people get IDs and driver licenses, who can’t just walk in and walk out. Colorado Legal Services attorneys provide legal and sometimes clerical assistance. Also part of the ID Project are Metro Caring, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Denver Health and Human Services.
An ID or driver license is far more than a ticket to happy hour or what you hand over to the cop who caught your California stop show.
Without this precious, often taken-for-granted card, you can’t bank or cash a check. You can’t get car insurance. You can’t, legally, get a job. You can’t buy a car, rent a hotel room, get health care, food assistance, or unemployment insurance benefits.
Well that’s not entirely true. Because so many people in crisis don’t have a state ID or driver license, some agencies have had to bend the rules to keep people from dying or starving. With great difficulty and a pile of papers, you can get some services. Most people are hooked up with services like Medicaid and even food stamps while in jail or coming out.
That was Brian’s good fortune. He came out of jail with Colorado Medicaid and enough jail ID and an address to get unemployment for a short time last summer.
He got unemployment because no one was hiring one-armed recovering heroin addicts, and he didn’t have an ID even if they would have.
The few weeks of unemployment he got ran out in the fall as Trump and Congress dallied on extending benefits.
Understanding that Brian had a birth certificate, a social security card and pile of papers from Social Security, Medicaid, Denver Health and Hospitals, Colorado unemployment offices, and the Colorado Department of Justice, I figured this would go pretty smoothly.
You can’t just walk into your neighborhood DMV and drop a folder on someone’s desk. It’s a pandemic. There are only certain DMV offices that accept “first time” ID applications. It’s by appointment only. Appointments are anywhere from three to seven weeks out. We had days.
I called the DMV anxious line and waited for an hour and eighteen minutes to talk to a human.
“Sorry” them’s the rules. But if you get on the state appointment website bright and early each day, you might snag a cancellation opening. At 8:21 on a Tuesday morning, I was able to get an appointment in Longmont, an hour away, for the following Monday.
That morning, I banged on Brian’s trailer door. Folder full of papers in hand, we muscled through traffic. There was a long line in front of the office as we rolled in 5 minutes early for our 8:40 a.m. appointment.
It was 18 degrees outside and Brian, looking thinner than ever, shivered as his mask drooped down his face and under his chin.
A line of frosty faces watched us wander to the door. Their looks clearly outed us as not being locals, and Brian being less than welcome.
It was only the second time I’d gone somewhere in public with Brian. He’s a slight guy, a little shorter than me. Sometimes he looks like he needs a home and a shave. Other times, he looks like a guy getting off work on a construction site. I’ve watched him react to people tho. His head bends over. He stares at his phone. He noticeably works to make himself inconspicuous. Downtown, you wouldn’t notice him. In front of a suburban DMV, people worked to see through him. I wondered how many times I’ve treated people like that before.
I told Brian I was glad we had an appointment so we didn’t have to stand in the cold in a line that looked like it would be hours to get out of.
Everyone in line also had an appointment for 8:40 a.m. We went to the back of line. After about a half hour, we got inside. We took a number. We waited another half hour.
When they called “310” we walked to the clerk window. I had forms, files and determination. The clerk found digital records of times in the past Brian had tried himself to get an ID.
After sifting through our stack of items, the DMV clerk made it clear: Without a driver license or other sanctioned picture ID, the case would go to the state for consideration as an “exception.”
A supervisor there said it looked pretty good, but unless I wanted to go get Brian a passport photo at Walgreens and apply for a U.S. Passport Card, using the rush method, which costs a couple hundred dollars, there was no other way to speed up the process.
In Colorado, you can get a U.S. passport more easily than a Colorado ID.
I thanked the woman and explained this really wasn’t a very good option for a homeless guy with $27 to his name, and who needs the ID yesterday.
I pressed and cajoled some more. They agreed to take Brian’s money and picture, in case it all worked out. Uneasy with us, it got worse when it came time to get a fingerprint.
“This is about to get really awkward,” I told the puzzled clerk.
“OK, give me your right hand,” she said as she got out a can of finger goop to accommodate taking prints on a static scanner.
“He doesn’t have a right hand,” I said. He held up his empty coat sleeve.
It took a while to figure out how to get around that. The machine and computer crashed. Twice. They couldn’t get his dry, worn skin to leave a print on the scanner, and they kept rubbing the cream into it.
“I’ll bet you didn’t think you were coming to the DMV for a finger massage,” the clerk said cheerfully, rubbing his finger for a fifth try at the scan.
“Actually, I’m finding it mildly erotic,” Brian said with a grin. We all laughed. They got the scan and the most ghastly ID picture ever taken, and we left empty handed.
On the way back to Denver, cold and dejected, Brian explained how he’d been wrestling with Colorado unemployment officials to get benefits his online portal showed he’d been awarded, but that he couldn’t get funded to his unemployment debit card.
While waiting 10 days for an answer from the DMV on whether they would grant him an ID, I appealed for more time from the Denver code department. That same day, I started hanging on conference calls with Brian trying to reach a human at the unemployment office. We spent hours, almost every day, on a conference call, listening to hold music so annoying I could fathom violence.
On conferenced hold, Brian would listen to me go in and out of Zoom meetings while I listened to him play X-box games and quibble with Bristol. During five different telephone episodes, we walked a tech through what I could see online in Brian’s account. Yes, he was due benefits. No, they hadn’t been paid. It’s unclear why.
Brian wasn’t alone. Tens of thousands of Colorado residents were also struggling to get benefits due them while Colorado was staggered by unemployment fraud running past the $6 million mark. While talking with a human there for a sixth time, I was able to glean from someone that, yes, all the boxes had been checked, but without a Colorado ID or license, each questionable account had to be addressed by hand. He was one of thousands in that virtual line.
A few days later, Brian got an email from the DMV. No dice. Without an ID, they couldn’t give him an ID. The birth certificate, the Social Security card, Medicaid and the Social Security letters in his name, all sent to the address next to mine, weren’t good enough. Even though he had an expired driver license in Ohio, which techs there could see, Brian wasn’t Brian.
Brian was Brian to the Colorado department of justice, where his picture and fingerprints existed, along with pictures and his complete record. Send more, was the message from the DMV.
It happens a lot, Sherman says.
She said, for the most part, the only thing that holds people up is just money and access. Birth certificates are expensive when you don’t have money for food or even a bus ticket. Smartphones are helpful, but trying to fill out complicated forms on a 4-inch screen without a keyboard is frustrating and sometimes impossible.
Through last year, the Colorado ID Project has provided vouchers for documents to more than 36,000 people, including veterans, disabled people, and mostly those who are homeless.
Sherman and other lawyers get involved when there’s complicated identity issues on birth records or other documents that need special attention,
It’s frustrating and laborious work. But it’s fruitful. Of the 1,000 or so cases her organization handles a year, everyone, eventually, gets an ID, as long as they don’t go away before they get the good news.
As is often the case, people who are homeless don’t have the luxury to just pass the time waiting for good news from the DMV. Their worlds are filled with problems that mostly center on survival. If they get arrested or moved away from a campsite, they might never be heard from again.
The February cold brought Denver’s notorious “stock show weather” late this year. Brian kept warm with a room heater plugged into our backyard fountain outlet. If he scored a few dollars, he would get a tank of propane for the extra cold nights. He developed an infection in his feet. The cold made it worse. I cajoled him into a trip to Denver’s city urgent care clinic. There, Brian is Brian. It was cellulitis, a potentially deadly problem. Loaded with antibiotics, my wife, Melody and I, started taking over dinners, to supplement his usual diet of Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries and pricey lactose-free milk, Brian’s guilty pleasure he’d get when I ran him to the store.
Bristol, whom I call “Fleabag” was always treated to a cheap rawhide bone.
While explaining how his food stamp card had gotten lost, he pooh-poohed my worries about him in the cold trailer.
“You’ll never know cold like having to spoon with stranger, sleeping on a sidewalk, just to keep from freezing to death,” he said. “This is nothing.”
You don’t have to google anything to see the extent of that problem for yourself. Aurora, and the entire metro area, is awash in homeless encampments. Many of the people living there are just an ID away from having some kind of chance to pull away from the brink.
Roberts said she’s hopeful that sympathetic state legislators will refund state requests for about $300,000 to replenish the ability for Metro Caring and others to provide vouchers for needed documents. The groups need more state funding for attorneys to muscle through problems and seek out the magic mix of documents that result in a state ID.
That was my mission with Brian. I studied the list of what can substitute for a sanctioned picture ID, just to get a sanctioned picture ID.
Baptismal records. Huh. Census records? Who has those? Retirement account receipts or yearbook pictures, not something a lot of homeless people pull out of their daypack.
We compiled a package of records that was an inch thick. Court records. Jail records. Therapy releases. Probation letters. Armed with 27 offerings, we marched into the Aurora DMV more determined than ever.
We would play every card. I told Brian this was a job for good cop, bad cop. I was going to be fierce and demanding. Brian’s job was to look pleading and pitiful.
“You gotta work that nub, dude,” I said. He practiced flopping his empty coat sleeve with a hangdog look for effect.
We stepped up to the counter as they started processing his records.
Name. Date of Birth. Height? “Five, ten” Brian said. I looked sideways at his maybe 5-7 frame. He grinned.
Weight? I looked at him hard. Last time, he’d pressed for 165.
“I guess about 140,” he said. The clerk smiled.
Rather than push back, the DMV guy cheerfully scanned the pile of proof. Brian did seem taller. Nobody seemed to pay any attention to us on our way out, still empty handed.
The snow came again. I got home late from work one night after he’d gotten his January stimulus check. It was burning a hole in his pocket. He wanted a guitar, and I was too tired for shopping. He got himself to a guitar store and back in the snow. He’s taught himself how to pick and strum the strings by taping a finger pick to a piece of plastic wrapped against his stump. I told him I couldn’t spend money on anything that wasn’t essential if I were him. He didn’t. I’ve watched him play. He’s good.
Convinced we would strike gold this time, I called back to the license plate office to find out how much it would cost to get a temporary plate for Brian’s trailer so he could roll it into an RV park. There, he could hang in Colorado until his probation is transferred to Ohio.
You can’t register an RV without a valid driver license, the clerk said. It’s considered a motor vehicle. Brian had to have insurance and a license. And you can’t get insurance without a driver license.
This was never going to end.
To get a driver license in Colorado, he needed a valid license from another state. Nope. Or, he needed a Colorado ID. Then he had to take the written test. Then a driving test.
A few days later, while on hold with the unemployment office, again — the state now owed Brian 5 weeks of unemployment benefits — Brian texted me.
“Did you register me to vote?” he asked.
I remembered the first time we’d gone to the DMV in Longmont, they asked Brian if he wanted to register to vote and be an organ donor. I smiled when he agreed to both.
“Dude, if the Colorado Secretary of State says you’re officially an identifiable Colorado resident, that can mean only one thing. You’re in.”
The next day, Brian was notified by email that his credentials were good. An ID was in the mail.
It took nine weeks and more than 33 hours of research, calling, driving and fretting.
It’s a rare person in the metro area experiencing the crisis of homelessness that has the resources or perseverance to fight that kind of battle, area homeless advocates say. Without the resources of ID project organizations and others, people just give up.
Without something as simple as an ID people in crisis are pretty much doomed to stay in crisis. Homeless advocates can help bridge the gap, but the bridge is long and treacherous.
Colorado DMV records show that out of about 1.4 million requests each year for driver licenses and IDs, about 4,100 involve “exceptions” cases.
For those cases, four offices review the requests, according to DMV spokesperson Derek Kuhn. Of those, an average of about 20% are kicked back, either for more documentation or appeal.
Cases can be submitted either “remotely” at a variety of DMV centers across the state, or at one of four designated sites, all which have long wait lists.
State DMV officials say the process is better and faster now. Until 2014, there was only one office in the state handling the cases, and only in person.
It’s unclear how many state employees review the exceptions cases, but Kuhn said only one technician handles a case, and the average response time is about 10 days after documents are provided.
Without sneaking into the virtual DMV line by checking for cancelations every day, getting an appointment can take weeks at any metro DMV center, even before submission. That and the review time adds up. After that, it takes another 10 days or so to mail out an ID.
Some of the homeless advocates I talked to said the biggest frustration, besides the slow pace, was the seemingly arbitrary nature of how some documents satisfy in some cases, and the same documents are rejected other times.
“We follow the rules and laws outlined by Colorado Revised Statute and the REAL ID Act when helping Coloradans through Exceptions Processing,” Kuhn said. “Our Exceptions Processing staff reviews each submitted document thoroughly to ensure that they are unaltered originals, amended originals and/or documents certified by the issuing agency. We do this to ensure the applicant’s identity and that fraudulent documents aren’t used to establish a Colorado driver license or ID. Because of the intricacies involved in the Exceptions Processing process, each application is processed on a case-by-case basis.”
Those who have been at this a long time say it’s a people-centric process, and it acts that way.
Before Brian got his actual Colorado ID in the mail, he was able to schedule and take the written driver test. I took the practice test, wondering how he would do. He seemed so preoccupied sometimes.
I flunked the practice test. Brian got 25 out of 25. He got his temporary permit for $18.
From there, we were able to clear driving record problems he still had in Ohio. He paid the $33 driver license fee, walked down the street to take a $70 road test at a driving school — state DMVs don’t offer that right now in the pandemic — and he became a licensed driver again. Legit.
The next day, Brian got a temporary car insurance policy, just for people with no cars. The trailer was his.
Colorado IDs in hand, he was able to sanction his identification for his unemployment benefits using the online ID.Me program. The system uses pictures of official state IDs and facial recognition. He waited for hours all night to finish a live video interview on his phone with an ID.Me clerk. A few days later, the state released five weeks worth of back unemployment benefits.
For Brian, it was a windfall.
He’s worked hard to press for transfering the remainder of two years probation to Ohio. I sat in a virtual Zoom court hearing with him a few weeks ago, telling the judge I couldn’t vouch for his yappy dog or really any behavior, but I could say that I’ve never known anyone with the level of perseverance it’s taken Brian to claw his way back to the surface of a nightmare that started with a fall and bottle of pain pills.
I’ve talked with his mom, who said the news Brian shared the other night, that he now has a way and a plan to get home, was her prayers answered.
Rather than pull the trailer and wait it out in an RV park, Brian decided to sell the trailer he bought for $1,000 for $700 to a guy who’s been living in a tent in downtown Denver for three years. He could have easily sold the worn but swanky RV for three times that.
Brian has since bought a cheap car, which he says smokes like “a fogger spraying for mosquitoes.” He’s going to stay in a cheap hotel and wait for good news from his probation officer. The good word will come in as a date he can give away his crappy car to someone who needs it and fly home with the fleabag for the last time.
Those involved in the Colorado ID project will keep pressing for birth certificates and medical records, hoping others, too, will be able to leverage something as simple as a picture ID into a chance to climb back into a world that works right.
Suggestions many have is a way to appeal to real DMV people in real time to look and possibly correct ID document questions, shortening the time. Others want the state to issue at least temporary IDs to help people in crises get basic services. Arguments against it are that some of the most important places that require an ID, wouldn’t take that one.
Homeless advocates say a current crisis exists for people without sanctioned IDs receiving stimulus checks with no way to cash them. The checks require official IDs or bank accounts for deposit. Without that, the checks cannot be “signed over” to family or friends. If getting an ID takes weeks, or months, the money, desperately needed now, could be lost.
“I can’t believe how no one at the state understands how hard they make it to jump through hoops we can’t get through,” Brian told me as we were waiting at a grocery store for help with exchanging a propane tank just before the big blizzard a couple of weeks ago. The store clerk pretty much ignored Brian, then told him it was too late to step outside and exchange the empty he’d brought in for a full one.
We walked out of the store with the empty and a fresh box of Cap’n Crunch, disappointed in the treatment by the clerk and no news from the DMV or unemployment office.
As I was loading Fleabag and Brian’s bag of cereal into the car, an older man came up on us and asked us how we were doing. He said anything we could offer would be helpful, especially with a storm on the way.
I told him I hadn’t a cent on me. I was being honest. Brian reached into his pocket and pulled out what was probably the last five dollars he had, and handed it to the man, who thanked him.
I didn’t ask him why he’d hand out his only money. Brian knows exactly who he is. I do, too. And now, so does Colorado.
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