CLEVELAND — He walks the same paths, but each day is a new journey for Dennis Ashton, an outreach worker for The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, otherwise known as NEOCH. 

What You Need To Know

  • More than 10,000 people in Ohio experience homelessness on any given night, according to National Alliance to End Homelessness 

  • There are many barriers to getting off the streets 

  • A big problem for those who are homeless is not having proper identification

  • The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless is working to help break down barriers 

Ashton makes sure people who sleep on the streets know they’re not forgotten. 

“We just let them know we’re here, we give them sandwiches and water, see what’s going on,” he said. 

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, more than half a million people in the U.S. experience homelessness on any given night, and more than 10,000 of those people are in Ohio. 

Ashton’s goal is to help get them from living in a tent to becoming a tenant.

“We know what you need to get housed and that's our purpose, is to get you housed, get you so you can turn your key,” said Ashton. “Because life is so much better. I mean, just imagine trying to go to work every day and you slept on a grate at the bus stop. Tonight, tomorrow night you sleep somewhere else. Can imagine going to work every morning?”

Dennis Ashton (Taylor Bruck/Spectrum News 1)

But getting off the streets isn't easy. To get housing, you need income. To get a job you need identification. 

“Just like you need water and food every day, you need an ID,” said Ashton. “If you're on the street, on a corner, the police can pull up on you and ask you if you have ID. If you can't provide your ID, they can take you to jail, and keep you until they find out who you are, you know what I'm saying? So it is a problem.” 

Getting an ID is becoming harder

But getting an ID is becoming more difficult. Most states require multiple documents including a birth certificate, social security card and proof of residence, such as a utility bill. 

The rules are even stricter when it comes to subsidized housing.

“All three cannot be missing,” said Ashton. “The social security card or the birth certificate or the ID, you have to have all three.”

Since 1988, NEOCH has sought to break the cycle of homelessness in northeast Ohio. They offer many outreach programs, one of which is helping the homeless community get proper identification. 

Ashton drives through the streets and travels around to resource centers and churches like Bishop William M. Cosgrove Center in Cleveland, looking for people who need assistance with the process. 

Ross Barry (Taylor Bruck/Spectrum News 1)

He helps people like Ross Barry, who is a homeless veteran. Barry said homeless and low income people often face considerable barriers to obtaining and keeping an ID. Some of those barriers include the cost of obtaining documents, lack of transportation and not having a safe place to store belongings.

"I tried to be a responsible person, but, you know, living, you know, from day to day on the street, here and there. Like I said, it's rough trying to keep all your belongings together,” said Barry, who currently lives in a homeless shelter. “A lot of us people like, you know, in the wintertime you got on a jacket and a coat and you’ve got 15 pockets and you're going in and out, looking for something else. And you don't even realize you dropped something.” 

Barry is currently on disability but is working to transition back into the workforce and wants to find housing. He’s working with Ashton to obtain all of his documents again. 

Not having an ID can make it virtually impossible to escape homelessness 

Without ID, you can’t get into housing, get a job or get preventative health care. You also can’t open a bank account, go to a food pantry, vote and much more. Federal, state and county buildings also require ID to enter, and many social service agencies are often inside. Homelessness can be a vicious cycle. Ashton said often homeless people aren't in planning mode, they’re in survival mode. 

“You live day to day to survive, to get something to eat, to get some clothing, you're not really thinking about processes and how you get housing or how you get IDs and stuff like that. That's not on your mind. It’s just to survive, survive the day and survive the night because it's very critical out there,” said Ashton.  

He knows the struggle firsthand as he said he lived the life for more than 20 years. He’s now paying it forward as loves the motto what goes around, comes around. 

“We will help you, we will get you there, I will give you a bus ticket or I will personally put you in my car and take you there, you know what I'm saying, to get it and sit there with you until you get that picture taken,” said Ashton. 

In just the six years he's worked for NEOCH, he said he's helped hundreds, maybe even thousands of people get their documents and enter housing. 

“It means something when someone cares. It means something to be loved,” said Ashton. “I feel like I'm giving back. I feel like it's my pathway to purpose. This is the only reason I'm alive. This is the only reason I wake up. I know I'm gonna do this to the day I die. This is what I'm going to do. This is what I love.”

Getting identification can be the first step into escaping homelessness and building a better future. Ashton said it can be a simple process, if you have help from someone who cares.  

“We just help the people get back on their feet and get out of survival mode, try to give them, let them know that there's some hope. That's our main purpose is hope,” said Ashton. “I love to see people prosper, I love people to get from homelessness to a place to stay and get to do better for themselves, know life is worth living and that’s why I love this job.”

NEOCH has many outreach programs. For more information, to donate or get involved you can visit here.