This is Life of the Law, I’m Nancy Mullane. 2017 has been a terribly rough year for thousands of people… There’ve been fires in Northern California and hurricanes and floods in Texas and Puerto Rico. Families have lost their homes, and all their belongings, including for many, their documentation and identification. Their social security card, driver’s license, birth certificates.
What happens when you lose your identification? How do you get it back? It’s not always as easy as you might think. As it turns out there are millions of Americans living in the shadows, without any form of government issued photo ID. They can’t get social security, and many can’t vote. A US Government Accounting Office study found that strict photo ID laws have reduced voter turnout by 2-3 percentage points, which according to the GAO can translate into tens of thousands of votes lost in a single state.
Reporter Megan Marelli has this story about one man’s life without a photo ID. We call the story Government Ghost.
DENNIS RICKETT GREW UP IN A WORKING-CLASS NEIGHBORHOOD IN BROOKLYN.
DENNIS: We lived in a front house which had six families and a yard and there was a two-family house in the back. In the summer, not every summer, my father would rig up the sprinkler so, you know, everyone could cool off.
HE WAS A REGULAR KID. HE WENT TO SCHOOL. PLAYED OUTSIDE.
DENNIS: Me and my father got along really good. One summer, I went with him. He used to drive a plywood truck and I went with him. I think he did that just to get me out of the house. Yeah, it was good. Part of the reason I think I have anxieties is one of the things he said which kind of drives me crazy is he said, if you can’t do anything right don’t do it at all. Now, how do you learn how to do something if you don’t do it right?
DENNIS SAYS HIS PARENTS WERE ALCOHOLICS. AND THAT MEANT HE SPENT A LOT OF TIME AS A KID TAKING CARE OF HIS FAMILY.
DENNIS: I used to help them with my grandmother downstairs. She wanted something from the store every day. Then I had to help my other grandmother and my uncle a few blocks away. So, I guess I didn’t have the hanging out with the friends at that age.
AT SCHOOL, DENNIS SAYS A TEACHER HELPED HIM FILL OUT THE PAPERWORK TO GET HIS FIRST PIECE OF IDENTIFICATION.
DENNIS: If it wasn’t for my junior high school teacher, Mr. Gangy, I wouldn’t have a social security card. He went out and got a bunch of social security forms. Gave one to all the kids in the class. Drew it on the black board and showed us how to fill it out. We did that, he mailed them in. That’s how I got my social security card. Not through my parents, through my teacher.
AND AFTER HE GRADUATED FROM JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL…
DENNIS: My parents didn’t even tell me I had to register for the draft so I didn’t have anything, even as a kid growing up. Somehow I registered to vote, I don’t remember how that happened.
AT THE AGE OF 25 DENNIS WAS LIVING AT HOME, STILL TAKING CARE OF HIS FAMILY. THEN ONE NIGHT HE LEFT THE HOUSE TO HELP OUT A FRIEND.
DENNIS: I was helping this guy out, what the heck was his name, this guy had a record store and he was moving to Queens and he wanted someone to stay with his mother because he was also driving a limo service while he was trying to get his store going.
But when I came home my mother told me my friend was looking for me. I find out one of my friends died on his job. So I go back upstairs, I told my mother I couldn’t eat. I tried laying down I couldn’t sleep. I said I want to go out for a walk.
I went to a neighborhood bar, had a couple of drinks, at least it seemed like a couple it could have been more. I come home, and my mother says to me “Where were you?” and I go “Why” and she goes, “Your father’s dead.”
WHILE DENNIS WAS AT THE BAR, GRIEVING THE LOSS OF HIS FRIEND, HIS FATHER HAD GONE OUT LOOKING FOR HIM. THERE WAS AN ACCIDENT.
DENNIS: It was raining, and there was a garbage truck parked the wrong way, and he walked around and got hit by a van… Yeah so Imagine that you come home and your mother tells you your father’s dead. 3:29: I don’t know I think I was in shock, I think the next day we went down to the morgue to identify the body. It’s still hard to believe that he’s dead though. For the longest time, I guess you always expect him to come home.
DENNIS SAYS HIS FAMILY, ESPECIALLY HIS MOM, BLAMED HIM FOR HIS FATHER’S DEATH.
DENNIS: I just got so fed up one day I just walked out without even thinking I just never went back. Never went back.
PROBLEM WAS DENNIS WALKED OUT WITHOUT FIRST GRABBING HIS ID.
DENNIS: I didn’t bring anything I just left. Just walked out. I just walked, didn’t even know it or not. I just left. I don’t know if I ever realized it, I don’t know if I ever thought about it.
ON THE STREET, DENNIS DIDN’T HAVE ANYTHING TO PROVE HE WAS DENNIS RICKETT. NO BIRTH CERTIFICATE, NO SOCIAL SECURITY CARD, NO DRIVER’S LICENSE… NOTHING.
DENNIS: I think I went to Manhattan. I think I slept in a park in a bush or something. Can’t remember exactly where.
WITH NO GOVERNMENT ISSUED ID, DENNIS SAYS HE HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO LIVE, IN MANHATTAN, ON THE STREET.
DENNIS: I used to sell the books for a dollar. People give you books and you go find boxes that people throw out. For some reason I decided to get a calligraphy pen. You know the chisel tip pen? I decided, I can learn to do that! I could do that. So I got the letter. Chisel tip pen. It was black, it had a black gothic letter K on it. People would give me a dollar to do a name or something like that.
EVERY MORNING DENNIS SAYS HE WOULD LAY A BLANKET OUT ON 72ND STREET. HE WOULD PUT ALL HIS BOOKS AND DRAWINGS DOWN AND TRY TO SELL THEM TO MAKE A LITTLE MONEY…
ONE DAY DENNIS SAYS A GUY, AN ARTIST WALKED BY, SAW HIS DRAWINGS AND TRIED TO HIRE HIM TO DRAW THE GRAPHICS FOR HIS NEW BOOK.
DENNIS: He wanted it to look hand-drawn, not like a stamp pressed machine, you know? Yeah because he was doing pictures of buildings in New York. Yeah nice guy, that would have been nice. But I told him I said look, he wanted me to do it I said yeah just give me a few bucks. No he wanted me to sign a contract where he paid me in a check, but I’m homeless without any ID. How can you do that?
HOMELESS AND WITHOUT ID, DENNIS WAS TRAPPED. HE COULDN’T TAKE WORK EVEN WHEN IT WAS OFFERED TO HIM. AND HE COULDN’T GET HELP FROM THE GOVERNMENT EITHER.
DENNIS: I can’t apply for public assistance. Even if I didn’t do that, let’s say I was 65, I couldn’t get social security.
THEN IN THE FALL OF OF 1989 DENNIS’S LIFE CHANGED AGAIN. THIS TIME FOR THE BETTER. HE DOESN’T REMEMBER IT AS LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT… BUT THERE, ON THE CORNER OF 72ND STREET AND BROADWAY, A MAN NAMED SAMUEL DELANEY STOPPED TO PICK OUT A BOOK.
DENNIS: I don’t think I thought anything the first time…But then he came back and bought a couple more I’m not sure.
AFTER THAT SAMUEL, WHO EVERYBODY KNOWS AS CHIP, WOULD STOP BY DENNIS’ CORNER PRETTY REGULARLY. ONE DAY, CHIP SUGGESTED THEY GET A ROOM AT THE SKYLINE HOTEL IN CHELSEA.
DENNIS: I don’t know how they let me in that hotel. I had on the jumpsuit, you know, like this kinda suit. My hands were pretty much, if not black, grey. I mean, yeah. They had a nice glass chandelier in there.
AFTER THAT, THEY WERE INSEPARABLE.
DENNIS: By March I was living with him. After being homeless it’s kind of strange because you have to get used to being inside again. I don’t know if you know what I mean but unless you’ve been outside 24 hours a day for six years it’s kind of hard… kind of strange getting used to being inside. Even though I had a place to stay with him when we were together I’d be outside most of the day and then come back in and I guess gradually over time I got used to being inside more. I guess it
I MEET UP WITH DENNIS IN PHILADELPHIA, WHERE HE SHARES A SECOND-FLOOR WALK UP WITH CHIP. BOOKSHELVES LINE THE WALLS IN THE HOUSE AND, NOW IN HIS 60’S, DENNIS IS BALD AND WEARS A GRAPHIC T-SHIRT.
CHIP: The thing is, why do they make it so hard, when you lose everything, to get it back? Do you have any answers to that?
CHIP IS NOW A RETIRED PROFESSOR, WITH A LONG GRAY BEARD. HE’S WEARING SUSPENDERS AND CARRIES A CANE. FOR MORE THAN TWO DECADES, CHIP SAYS HE’S BEEN TRYING TO HELP DENNIS GET A PHOTO ID.
CHIP: When we first got together I had already decided that this was something I wanted to do I wanted to get it done. I’ve been doing this constantly. I’m sure I could cite 10 or 12 times where we’ve worked on this but we’ve just had to stop.
TOGETHER CHIP AND DENNIS TRACKED DOWN OLD SCHOOL RECORDS, THEY WENT TO SOCIAL SECURITY OFFICES AND PLEADED WITH PEOPLE BEHIND THE COUNTER. BUT NOTHING WORKED, BECAUSE…
DENNIS: To get photo ID you need photo ID.
IT’S A CATCH-22. IF YOU WANT TO GET A PHOTO ID LIKE A DRIVER’S LICENSE OR A PASSPORT, YOU NEED TO SHOW A PHOTO ID. IF YOU WANT TO GET A COPY OF YOUR BIRTH CERTIFICATE, YOU NEED TO SHOW PHOTO ID. IF YOU WANT A SOCIAL SECURITY CARD, YOU NEED TO SHOW PHOTO ID. IF YOU DON’T HAVE A BIRTH CERTIFICATE, AND YOU DON’T HAVE PHOTO ID, IT’S REALLY HARD TO GET RECOGNIZED AS A CITIZEN.
DENNIS SPREADS OUT A BUNCH OF ID APPLICATION FORMS ON THE TABLE. MANY OF THEM ARE FORMS THAT PEOPLE HAVE GIVEN HIM TO GET PHOTO ID. BUT THEY ALL REQUIRE A PHOTO ID.
DENNIS: It says have to be a US citizen, where the heck is it, oh come on…I’m trying to find the thing where it says you need the ID…
CHIP: I mean it just doesn’t stop. it’s something that becomes part of every… You say how many times, it’s something that has been part of every day.
IT CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE, REALLY. PEOPLE CAN LOSE THEIR PHOTO ID OR THEIR BIRTH CERTIFICATE, OR BOTH IN ANY NUMBER OF WAYS… LIKE DENNIS WHEN THEY RUN AWAY FROM HOME AND LOSE CONTACT WITH FAMILY. OR IN A FIRE, FLOOD OR HURRICANE.
THE AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION REPORTS MORE THAN 11% OF US CITIZENS OR MORE THAN 21 MILLION AMERICANS DON’T HAVE GOVERNMENT ISSUED PHOTO IDENTIFICATION. THESE ARE PEOPLE WHO ARE MOSTLY LOW INCOME, ELDERLY, FROM A RACIAL OR ETHNIC MINORITY OR HAVE DISABILITIES.
CHIP SAYS MORE OFTEN THAN NOT, HE’S BEEN THE ONE FIGHTING TO GET A PHOTO ID FOR DENNIS… AND HE SAYS, FOR GOOD REASON…
CHIP: This is something I’ve really now prioritized. It’s something I want. I’m 75 years old and I’m not going to be here that long. I have good genes in the family but I want to see this taken care of.
CHIP WORRIES THAT WITHOUT PHOTO ID DENNIS WON’T HAVE ANY WAY OF SUPPORTING HIMSELF AFTER HE DIES.
CHIP: The only money he gets is basically what I give him out of my pocket. Yes, I do support you but it’s not just support. It’s not like what a husband and wife would do today, it’s rather what a husband and wife would have had to have done 100 years ago. Because women couldn’t vote, didn’t have all those other rights that allow you to be a fiscally independent person.
CHIP SAYS THAT MEANS THEY CAN’T GIVE UP. ONE MORNING HE SHOWS UP ON THE DOORSTEP OF ANGELA GIAMPOLO, AN ATTORNEY IN PHILADELPHIA.
GIAMPOLO: There’s a local coffee shop I believe that’s actually how they got my name was just our joint barista and they know their story and I think they said, “You know what just go see Angela.”
AFTER LISTENING TO DENNIS’S STORY, GIAMPOLO OFFERS TO TAKE HIS CASE, TO REINSTATE DENNIS’ IDENTITY, PRO BONO, FOR FREE.
GIAMPOLO: There are actually 16 million people in America dealing with this particular issue, and rates, the percentages of people double when they’re making under 25 thousand per year. So it’s actually a much more pervasive issue than we realize.
FOR THE MILLIONS OF PEOPLE LIVING WITHOUT ID, THERE IS ONE WAY TO RE-ESTABLISH THEIR IDENTITIES. BUT IT CAN BE EXPENSIVE. AN ATTORNEY, LIKE GIAMPOLO, CAN VOUCH FOR YOU. THE ATTORNEY FILES AN AFFIDAVIT WITH THE COURT SAYING YOU ARE WHO YOU SAY YOU ARE. BUT THERE’S A CATCH.
MARSHA COHEN IS DIRECTOR OF THE HOMELESS ADVOCACY PROJECT, A LEGAL CLINIC IN PHILADELPHIA. THE DOORMAN IN HER OFFICE LETS ME IN AFTER I SHOW HIM A COPY OF MY DRIVER’S LICENSE.
MEGAN: Oh, you need to see my ID? Sure…
COHEN SAYS SHE HAS FIFTY CLIENTS WHO CAN’T GET GOVERNMENT ISSUED PHOTO IDS, EVEN WITH AN ATTORNEY FILING AN AFFIDAVIT. THAT’S BECAUSE SOME JURISDICTIONS, LIKE NEW YORK CITY, WHERE DENNIS’ BIRTH CERTIFICATE WAS ISSUED, WON’T ALLOW ATTORNEYS TO VOUCH FOR THEIR CLIENTS IDENTITIES.
COHEN: The only problem we have ever had is with New York City which simply will not take an attorney certification as being sufficient to issue a birth certificate on behalf of a homeless person.
SO, WHILE CHIP AND DENNIS WORK WITH ANGELA GIAMPOLO, HIS PRO-BONO ATTORNEY, TO TRY AND GET A COPY OF HIS BIRTH CERTIFICATE, MARSHA COHEN FILES A CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT AGAINST THE CITY OF NY TO ALLOW PEOPLE LIKE DENNIS, PEOPLE BORN IN NEW YORK CITY, TO GET GOVERNMENT ISSUED ID THROUGH ATTORNEY AFFIDAVIT.
COHEN: We filed a civil rights lawsuit saying they were violating substantive and procedural due process under the 14th Amendment.
COHEN SAYS NEW YORK CITY PUSHED BACK.
COHEN: Ironically, New York City was mostly worried about the fraud potential here. If you fraudulently get a birth certificate on behalf of a client, then you can get whatever else you need to impersonate that client and conduct identity fraud… This had to do with the notion that there could be terrorists masking themselves as Americans.
FRUSTRATED BY YET ANOTHER HURDLE, DENNIS AND CHIP MAKE ONE LAST RANDOM CALL FOR HELP, TO SEE IF SOMEONE. ANYONE HAS A SOLUTION.
Chip: You know, help, is there anybody who can do anything about this.
TO THEIR SURPRISE, CHIP SAYS THEY GOT A MESSAGE FROM SOMEONE ON FACEBOOK.
Chip: And so this woman in Arlington, Virginia said hey I am a genealogist.
A GENEALOGIST. SOMEONE WHO TRACKS DOWN YOUR LONG-LOST HERITAGE.
Chip: She went through and she made a couple of phone calls and she got through.
CHIP SAYS THE GENEALOGIST IN VIRGINIA WAS ABLE TO TRACK DOWN DENNIS’ BIRTH CERTIFICATE NUMBER FROM NEW YORK STATE’S CUSTODIAN OF RECORDS. IT HAD BEEN HIDDEN IN A FILE IN HIS OLD BROOKLYN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. THEN, ONE DAY IN THE SPRING OF 2017, DENNIS SAYS HIS BIRTH CERTIFICATE SHOWED UP IN THE MAIL.
Dennis: It felt really good.
I VISIT DENNIS AGAIN. HE LOOKS CALMER THAN THE FIRST TIME I MET HIM. HE AND CHIP HAVE MOVED TO A NEW APARTMENT. NOW FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HIS ADULT LIFE, DENNIS IS ON HIS WAY TO FULL DOCUMENTATION. HE HAS A SOCIAL SECURITY CARD, AND SOON, AT THE AGE OF 63, HE’S GOING TO GET HIS FIRST GOVERNMENT ISSUED PHOTO ID.
Dennis: I’m getting the therapy I need now, probably needed my whole life because I used to bite my fingernails till they bled. So therapy, I’m not drinking, next august it’ll be 13 years. I’m not smoking. I have ID. Things are looking up, a lot better than they were.
OH AND ABOUT THAT CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT? A FEW MONTHS AGO, NEW YORK CITY SETTLED. SO IF YOU WERE BORN IN THE CITY AND YOU LOST YOUR ID, YOU CAN PAY AN ATTORNEY TO VOUCH FOR YOU. AND ONE DAY, LIKE DENNIS, YOU’LL GET A DOCUMENT WITH YOUR NAME ON IT IN THE MAIL.
FOR LIFE OF THE LAW, I’M MEGAN MARRELLI.
Government Ghost was reported by Megan Marrelli and edited by myself. Ian coss sound designed this episode. Tony Gannon is our Senior Producer. Our Post Production Editors are Kirsten Jusewicz-Haidle and Rachael Cain. We had engineering support from Rami Azer at Encounter Studios in Toronto. XXX engineered our episode from KQED Radio in San Francisco. Original music in this episode was composed by Ian Coss.
If you like stories about the law but have gotten tripped up by the legal system, tune into Life of the Law on iTunes. Take a few minutes to post your review, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
Each time we publish a new episode we send everyone who’s subscribed to our newsletter a behind scenes look at Life of the Law, that includes notes from our reporters and news about upcoming investigative reports. This week, Megan Marrelli shares her experience at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and her discovery of Dennis and life without government issued identification. Also in this issue of our Newsletter, a video of our Advisory Board Member, Jessica McKellar’s story at 2x Hustle in San Francisco, about her work and life as an advocate for justice. You can subscribe to our newsletter at lifeofthelaw.org.
We’re a non-profit project of the Tides Center and we’re part of the Panoply Network of Podcasts from Slate. You can also find Life of the Law on PRX, Public Radio Exchange. We’re funded by the Law and Society Association, the National Science Foundation, and by you. Visit our website, Life of the Law.org and make a very much appreciated donation.
Next on Life of the Law…our team will meet up in the studios of KQED to talk about THE MILLIONS OF AMERICANS LIVING WITHOUT PHOTO IDS AND VOTER ID LAWS.
Suggested Reading and Viewing:
Megan Marelli: Behind the Scenes
Two years ago, I wrote a magazine article about a man who lived without ID for more than 15 years. His name is Dan McLaughlin. His family home burned down in the 1990s and then, years later, he had the rest of his documents stolen in the men’s shower room in a Toronto homeless shelter. We met up at least a dozen times over the course of about a year and half. I was with him when he finally got his Ontario health card.
Before I sat down to write that story I listened to hours of tape from our interviews. There were days when Dan was hopeful and happy because he’d get a new idea for a way to get I.D., and his excitement came across in the tape. Then there were days when he was deflated, because he’d been denied at a social services counter yet again. On those days he’d tell me that he felt like “a man without a country.”
It was transcribing those interviews that made me think about how well this narrative would work in sound. When you’re in the presence of the people going through this their angst and deflation comes across so clearly on the microphone. It’s a really emotional issue for people.
Dan had mentioned to me in passing one day that he knew another guy going through the same problems—Dennis Rickett.
A few months later I moved to New York and signed up for the radio workshop at the Columbia Journalism School. The course hadn’t even started yet when I decided the story I wanted to report first. The first week of class I bought a bus ticket to Philadelphia and put together a four-minute version of Dennis’ story. My professor Kerry Donahue sent it to Nancy Mullane who helped me craft it into a full-length podcast episode.