Born without a birth certificate, a lifelong struggle for some in the South

Updated: Apr. 21, 2021 at 6:15 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - There has been a lot of debate in the past decade about photo IDs: voter ID, Real ID and when you need an ID. But the issue for many older people in South Carolina and Georgia isn’t the ID itself, it’s that they don’t have a birth certificate.

It’s something Managing Attorney Sheila Thomas of South Carolina Legal Services says is commonplace in rural, minority communities across the South. Della Green, 69, fits that bill. Green has lived her entire life without a birth certificate. Now that she has moved to Georgia with her daughter and her family, she said she’s having a difficult time finding housing.

“Without an ID, I guess no one would give me anything,” said Green.

Green is a U.S. citizen who has a social security number and receives various government benefits. But she’s never had a birth certificate. She was born on Johns Island, S.C. in 1951. She was delivered by a midwife, but her birth was not properly documented.

Green’s daughter, Tempest Hamilton, has spent years trying to help her mom.

“Everything she would need, you can’t get it without a birth certificate,” said Hamilton.

Hamilton and her young family move periodically for work, and her mom follows. She said every time she moves to a new state, it’s a fight to get her mom the very basics.

“I’m pretty much the big bad wolf,” said Hamilton. “I always try to jump in and help her!”

Green battled with alcoholism at a young age, but recovered, worked several jobs and raised a family. But her move to Georgia has proven to be one of the family’s biggest challenges yet. She’s grateful to have a daughter that fights for her.

“That’s my baby right there,” said Green. “She helps me so much.”

Hamilton says every subsidized housing complex they’ve applied to in the Savannah area requires a photo ID. There was one nearby housing complex in particular they wanted to move her into, but they were denied because she does not have a state-issued photo ID.

“The housing place is actually getting government funds. She’s getting retirement income from the government! So, in my mind, this doesn’t make any sense,” said Hamilton.

She went to Columbia, the capital of South Carolina and tried to get her mom’s birth records from Vital Records, which is part of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). They said they couldn’t help her. WTOC reached out to Vital Records. They say they accept 11 different forms of photo IDs, including passports, school IDs, even gun permits.

Not on the list? Social security cards, which are issued by the federal Social Security Administration and don’t include a photo. For Green, that means the struggle to find housing continues.

“For any sort of subsidized housing, certainly, anything that’s federally subsidized, they may have that issue,” said Thomas, who works with the Orangeburg office of South Carolina Legal Services.

South Carolina Legal Services assists low-income people with legal representation in civil cases. Lawyers assist people like Green with filing paperwork, working with state agencies and, if necessary, represents them in court. She says Green’s situation is not uncommon.

“I think a lot of people just don’t understand how difficult it is. You need an ID for everything,” said Thomas. “I had one gentleman who carried around a social security check. It was his first sort of lump sum check when he started getting benefits... He carried it around for almost a year. He couldn’t cash it, because he didn’t have a bank account, because he didn’t have a photo ID, because he didn’t have a birth certificate.”

Hamilton says she wishes more people understood there’s more to this issue than meets the eye.

“There are people struggling that can’t get the necessary things,” said Hamilton. “She can’t get a place to live. This is a huge necessity.”

We asked DHEC how many people like Green are facing this issue in South Carolina. They said they do not track that data. The South Carolina Election Commission did tell WTOC there were nearly 205,000 registered voters in the state in October 2012 who the state believed did not have a driver’s license or state-issued photo ID. People like Green may struggle to get these IDs if they don’t have a birth certificate.

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