Nearly two decades of using heroin and a year of living on the streets of Philadelphia had led Steven Kemp to a simple conclusion: It was time to get sober. But when he staggered into a detox facility on a recent Friday night, his head brimming with the thought that suicide would end the pain, he was told he couldn’t be admitted because he didn’t have a photo ID.
Kemp said he was turned away from the hospital and spent the night stealing enough small items to trade for a handful of Xanax. He swallowed the pills, cooked up some heroin and injected the drug into his arm with the intention of killing himself.
“If somebody goes in and says ‘I need help,’ they should get it,” said Kemp, 35. “I understand people have to get paid but you’re supposed to be a health professional, you took an oath.”
As the nation’s heroin and painkiller epidemic rages, small but vulnerable populations of homeless people are sometimes turned away from the nation’s already-threadbare system of drug treatment centers because they do not have valid photo identification.
Transient lifestyles are not conducive to keeping the identifying documents that are often necessary during the screening processes for drug treatment facilities. To reapply for the documents can sometimes take months, especially if a person doesn’t have a stable address, birth certificate or Social Security card.
The consequences can often be deadly or dangerous, experts said.
“It’s Russian roulette every time you inject. We let them die from a treatable disease because they don’t have an ID,” said Dr. Corey Waller, chairman of the legislative advocacy committee of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, a group that represents addiction specialists.
Even with political will at a high to combat an opioid epidemic that killed more than 30,000 people in 2015, less than one in 10 of the country’s substance abuse treatment facilities offer certified opioid treatment programs, according to statistics collected by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration last year.
People without IDs generally don’t make it past the intake process at medical facilities, so tallies of their refusals are hard to come by, but advocates said it happens at least twice a day in Philadelphia alone.
Experts said they’ve never seen a consolidated statistic on how frequently it happens nationwide, but the ID barrier to treatment is well known; a 2010 Baltimore study recommended facilities waive the…