A jackpot better than cash? Call it a California ID card

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The chances of winning the California Lottery are not that great – maybe one in 15 million. But the allure of winning tens of millions of dollars keeps people pressing their luck.

In San Francisco, there’s another lottery that has people praying for a big win, but the grand prize is something most people take for granted.

In this second installment of our look at undocumented citizens, we take you to the Tenderloin Self-Help Center, a local non-profit where getting your name pulled out of the hat can translate into a legal identity.

Nancy López reports.

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NANCY LOPEZ: A line of people is beginning to form near the reception desk at the Tenderloin Self-Help Center on Turk Street. You can see them every Tuesday morning at 9:00 a.m., right on the dot, signing up to win the lottery.

Fifty-seven-year-old John Atchen is at the from of the line, inching forward to add his name to the list. He’s tall with a sultry voice, and he proudly sports an SF Giants black and orange hoodie. He’s looking to strike it big today. And he’s hopeful, because last week he struck out when 40 people showed up

JOHN ATCHEN: This week 12 people showed up.  

By the looks of it, you’d think people were signing up to win money, or maybe even food or a bed for the night. But not exactly. The center is raffling off a service that Jenny Wiley, the program director, says they don’t publicize too much because the demand is too high.

JENNY WILEY: Once a week we take 10 people up to the DMV to get an ID.

That’s right. This is a lottery where people win help getting an ID. The self-help center pays the $26 ID fee and provides bus fare to the DMV, along with help navigating through the process. John Atchen won the lottery today, and he says it’s like striking gold.

ATCHEN: I can’t afford to pay for a California ID or $26 or $24 at the rate they are. I’m homeless, I don’t get GA, I don’t get food stamps, so how am I going to pay that? By street crime, hustling. So I do without. So thank God they have this program. 

About half the people seeking IDs are homeless, like Atchen. Others are housed in single room occupancy hotels or SROs. Oftentimes, they don’t have the money or the recourse to go to the DMV and funnel through the process themselves. So on any given Tuesday, up to 20 people show up at the Tenderloin Self-Help Center looking to get their California state ID.

STAFF PERSON: Thanks you all for being patient with the process, it’s not easy to get up in the morning and wait, right, let alone to go to the DMV where we wait some more. So here’s how we’re going to roll today…

Staff members at the center are helping today’s 10 lottery winners fill out the DMV’s ID application form.

STAFF PERSON: So the pens should be coming around, does everybody have a pen?

WILEY: It really helps that the staff person is familiar with the process and so it’s not intimidating if somebody has literacy issues or English is not the first language.

Jenny Wiley says this is the reason why they see their clients through the entire process.

WILEY: It helps to have people who can negotiate the process. Or maybe someone has vision impairment and can’t see the text real well … it’s basic but it’s nonetheless very detailed and specific

STAFF PERSON: Like I said, if you don’t have a mailing address or you’re uncomfortable using the one you have currently, you’re welcome to use ours, alright? What that means is that when your ID comes it’ll come here.

Another lottery winner, Ahamad Wazir, is sitting in one of the chairs along the back of the room. He says a person without an ID is pretty much invisible.

AHAMAD WAZIR: No one pays attention to you if you don’t have it. They’re like, “Who are you? Why don’t you come back when you have it” You simply don’t have access. You can’t visit your friends in the SROs. I can understand the job thing, I’d be the same way.

Wazir is from Guiana. His green card expired, and it takes two years to renew it. Although he has a court document asserting his identity and that he’s legally in the country, he’s nervous about whether he’ll be granted a California ID today.

NANCY LOPEZ: So you’re crossing your fingers.

WAZIR: Major, toes, everything. 

ERIC PERKINS: And please do not sign it. At the bottom it says “Do not sign until instructed to do so by the DMV.”

Now, it’s time to catch the bus. On our way, Atchen says having a California ID can be the difference between feeling safe and getting locked up over night.

ATCHEN: Because we don’t have to look over our shoulders for the police. If they do happen to stop us and we’re in the wrong area, at least we can protect ourselves by showing our ID. Oh, there goes our bus!

We make our way to the DMV on Fell St. Eric Perkins, who’s the staff member accompanying the 10 winners, gathers everyone so they can stand in line together.

Perkins figures it will take two to three hours to make it through this line. He says that’s pretty normal.

ERIC PERKINS: It’s not a difficult process but it is a process like every process. It’s procedures, it’s stages and it’s requirements. 

Requirements that lottery winner Wazir did not meet, according to Perkins.

PERKINS: He had documentation, but it was copies. It has to be originals, so he won’t be able to get his ID. That’s their policy, they can’t override. So he’s already had to leave. He’s somewhere … oh here he is right here!

WAZIR: See I’m invisible, huh?

PERKINS: No, no, I didn’t know.

Wazir is baffles about the rejection and decides to go back into the DMV to see if he can speak with a supervisor. He comes back out a little while later.

WAZIR: She said, “We’ll accept that if it’s the original.” And I’m explaining, “That is the original, that’s what I got.” The judge gave me a paper saying it’s okay, I’m free to live in America and all that. And now I can’t get an ID, and I need to work, and I can’t get a job without an ID. And this is the position they’ve put me in.

Perkins says this is why some people, like Wazir and others, don’t make it far in the DMV process, even when they have the right paperwork in order.

PERKINS: But if you don’t have it in its original form then that’s not verification of ID.

We’re standing outside the DMV, and as the sun reaches its 12:00 peak, the operator inside is barely calling number 110. For Atchen, that’s 37 more people to go.

ATCHEN: But we’re going to think about the positive stuff today. The positive thing is that 90% of us got IDs out of here.

Jenny Wiley says it would be great to let everybody know about their ID lottery system, but already, they don’t have the resources to see more than 10 people a week through this process. But Wiley is committed to at least helping those 10 lucky people each week, because today’s growing need for housing and social services makes having a California state ID a basic need.

In San Francisco, I’m Nancy Lopez for Crosscurrents.

Nancy López is a reporter with the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Listen to the first part of her two-part series on undocumented citizens here.