The list of important papers is long, from birth certificates, driver’s licenses, wills and Social Security cards to school transcripts, hospital records and proof of insurance. What if you could not find any of the documents that establish your identity? Homeless individuals in San Antonio, along with survivors of Hurricane Katrina, face that challenge as they try to, on paper, re-establish their identities.
Marina Crayton and other students in the physician assistant (PA) studies master’s degree program at the Health Science Center are learning how to help homeless individuals – and recent evacuees – navigate the paper trail as part of a service project called “Reclaim Your Name.” The students are briefing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the city of San Antonio on the techniques they have developed.
The project began two years ago. Homeless people are invited to “Café Corazon” at Travis Park United Methodist Church on Sunday and Tuesday mornings. The students, with help from church volunteers, determine which papers need to be replaced and map out a strategy for doing so. They have developed a fine-tuned system for contacting the states to obtain documents.
“We are finding new challenges with the Katrina situation,” Crayton said. “Secondary identification documents such as birth certificates are difficult to get from Louisiana because systems are down. We are trying to help survivors fill out the paperwork necessary to get temporary Texas identification.”
A grant from the Physician Assistant Foundation enables the students to provide funds to help the homeless and evacuees in San Antonio to pay for a new birth certificate or driver’s license, and to arrange transport for them to local offices where further help is available. Travis Park United Methodist received an additional grant and hired four employees for the project.
The Health Science Center PA program is oriented toward community service, and every third-year student participates in a service project to fulfill graduation requirements. The Reclaim Your Name project sensitizes students to the needs of those who have lost their vital documents. “If you take care of people like these disaster victims who have lost their identities, you learn important lessons,” said J. Dennis Blessing, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of physician assistant studies. “This is the first program of its kind in San Antonio and this service is not done elsewhere routinely, although some homeless shelters provide similar services.”
“You can’t get the patients into the medical system without an ID card,” said Judith Colver, associate chair of PA studies and project mentor. “The best physician assistants are the ones who know how to navigate the system to serve their patients.”’
PA studies alumni Rodney Haltom, now at the U.T. M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and Sidney Warner, now with the Health Science Center’s general surgery division, developed the program in 2003 and 2004. They handed the baton to Crayton, Ruben Morales, Monica Galfo and Tiffani Burgin. The second group was successful in obtaining a grant renewal to continue the program.
“Some pharmaceutical companies are thinking about expanding this on a national basis,” Colver said.
Crayton said most Katrina survivors have lost secondary identifications such as birth certificates as well as primary identifications such as driver’s licenses. “Some people are being asked to go in person to Louisiana to get the original document, which of course they can’t do without transportation,” Crayton said.
“If you don’t have any ID, you can’t get any health care,” she added. “It is very difficult for these people to get a job, get aid and get on with their lives. I feel so bad for them. At least Reclaim Your Name is a place for them to go. It may take a long time, even months, to get a birth certificate. It is a long process, but at least we are helping them reclaim their name.”