In Miami-Dade County, there's a man whose legal name is simply "Unnamed Shiggs," though he normally goes by the more standard "Jesse Lee."
According to the court filing to change his name, Shiggs was born in South Carolina in 1953. Because his parents failed to provide that state's authorities with a first name within a year of his birth, he was officially recorded without one. Without a full legal name, the August 1 Miami-Dade Circuit Court petition states, South Carolina will not provide Shiggs with a copy of his birth certificate. It's a Catch-22.
"Without an ID, he can't get the birth certificate, but he can't get an ID without a birth certificate," says Daniel Rowinsky, an attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami who's assisting Shiggs.
Shiggs is hardly alone: Dozens of people who have no legal identity live in Miami-Dade. Almost all are homeless. Almost none have the wherewithal to begin the court process that would return to them their names. And very, very few trust anyone who might claim to help them, particularly the lawyers they need to get the ball rolling.
Such is the lot of Legal Services and the Lazarus Project, a part of the nonprofit Camillus House whose workers and attorneys scour bridges and encampments in search of the poorest of the community's poor and attempt to fix at least some of their legal issues. An ID card is vital, they say. With it, their clients can gain access to housing, drug and medical treatment, and a host of other things to which they are legally entitled — if only they could prove who they are.
"Most people think getting an ID is supersimple, but it sometimes takes us a couple of years," Rowinsky says.
Camillus House CEO Hilda Fernandez says the Lazarus Project strives to help people who are "chronically homeless, severely mentally ill, and resistant to treatment." She notes the specialized group focuses on a very small portion of the overall population.
Their work begins with outreach trips. About twice a month, Legal Services attorneys accompany nurses, social workers, and other staff to the places where their current and prospective clients live. Though Camillus House does outreach in Miami Beach for the other services it provides, such as delivering medication, the legal part of the equation operates solely in downtown Miami.
"We go out with the Camillus House folks who have relationships with those who are experiencing homelessness," says attorney Jackie Ebert, who works with Rowinsky. "A lot of those clients take months, if not years, of trust-building."
If it proves unsuccessful, she says, the Camillus House workers can leave a note or tell others in that community that someone is looking for them. The nurse practitioners are extremely well known in the community because many have worked in it for decades.
Once the first hurdle of finding a client is done, then the long legal process can begin.
In the case of Shiggs, his lengthy rap sheet complicates matters. According to an exhibit contained in the court filing, Shiggs has had run-ins with the law almost constantly since he moved to Florida in 1980. The list shows more than 30 citations and arrests in Miami-Dade, as well as convictions for trespassing, cocaine possession, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and other crimes.
Generally speaking, Rowinsky says, people who have had their civil rights suspended following a felony conviction cannot change their name — a wrinkle that the recently passed Amendment 4, which restored the voting rights of felons, does not address. The idea is that people shouldn't be able to hide their past by changing their name.
But in Shiggs' case, he's trying to change his name to the one under which he has been convicted dozens of times. He's obviously not trying to hide his past, and though Shiggs technically doesn't have the right to do it, Rowinsky says, judges have discretion in cases such as these, and he's hoping the court will see it his way.
Indeed, a search for Shiggs in the Miami-Dade court system uncovers a host of aliases — Jeffrey Grant, Jesse Grant, Jesse Jeffrey Grant, Jesse Shiggas, Jesse Smiggs, and Billy Turner — as well as cases under several birthdates. His documentation is, frankly, a mess.
Clearly, the police, prisons, and jails know who this man is, belying why it would be such a challenge for him to obtain identification. But Rowinsky says they simply rely on fingerprints to establish identity, caring little for whatever names inmates give.
Rowinsky says when he gave a presentation to executives in the Miami district of the federal Bureau of Prisons explaining his clients' difficulty in obtaining IDs, he was nearly laughed out of the room.
"They just assume [the inmates] are lying," he says.
In some cases, Rowinsky says, federal and state prison authorities will try to get the paperwork to straighten out someone's identity. But if they run into any problems, such as an issue with the birth certificate, they just move on. Considering the widespread funding cuts, Rowinsky says, he understands why they wouldn't see it as a priority.
It's not just felons who have issues. For a law-abiding citizen who can't get a birth certificate — say, if that person doesn't know where they were born — obtaining an ID can be difficult. Rowinsky says people in the foster care system sometimes have trouble because of this. They might not know exactly where, or even when, they were born.
Family members can request a copy of a birth certificate — as can attorneys in most states — but only if they know the date of birth and the location. People without family or with mental health issues are also stuck.
Natalie Castellanos is the director of policy and public affairs for the Health Foundation of South Florida, a nonprofit that, according to its website, makes it "possible for people to get and stay healthy in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties."
Castellanos says having an ID card is a bedrock "social determinate of health," meaning the elements of human existence — housing, nutritious food, community ties, and the like — that affect an individual's health.
"It is a keystone determinate," she says. "It's one of those fundamental pieces of doing anything. It's very difficult to stay alive and healthy without it."
Ebert, of Legal Services, says most of her clients come from Lotus House, the women's shelter just north of downtown Miami. She describes her work as handling any civil matters that prevent her clients from getting the housing they need.
Often this involves identification issues. Ebert has one client who can't obtain a birth certificate — and thus an ID — because she doesn't know where she was born.
"No one is disputing that she was born in the U.S," Ebert says, "but she can't get housing without some form of ID. My office has had this case for years, and she's been in limbo trying to get this document."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Both Ebert and Rowinsky describe some of their work as more akin to a private investigator's tasks than to a lawyer's. Rowinsky often uses FamilySearch.com, a website run by the Mormon church, while Ebert uses Ancestry.com to find information about clients' backgrounds.
Fernandez, of Camillus House, says there's at least one bright spot: Once someone has a birth certificate and obtains a Florida ID through the Department of Motor Vehicles, they don't have to go through the process again.
"Once they have your info in the system, you don't have to do it again, which is a blessing if you're a homeless person, because they lose their info all of the time," she says.
But it takes time — sometimes years. Assuming the petition for Shiggs is granted, he still must obtain his birth certificate from South Carolina before even applying for a Florida ID. So far, no hearing has been set.