By Gina Passarella
Of the Legal Staff
The Homeless Advocacy Project has held birth certificate clinics for at least five years, but Executive Director Marsha Cohen said the program has become all the more important in light of Pennsylvania’s new voter identification law.
HAP has applied for 800 birth certificates so far this year for the homeless or those at risk of being homeless. The certificates are needed to help with acquiring things such as disability benefits, housing and now voter identification, she said.
On the day before the state Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on the validity of Pennsylvania’s voter identification law, 40 lawyers from the Homeless Advocacy Project, Exelon, Ballard Spahr and other corporate law departments have teamed up to provide a birth certificate clinic.
The clinic opened at 9
a.m. today and was greeted with about 45 people standing outside the doors of the PECO building waiting for assistance. The clinic was expected to serve about 200 people before it closed at noon. Clients were being bused in from shelters.
"Every so often a van arrives with a dozen people," Ballard Spahr Pro Bono Director Mary Gay Scanlon said from the lobby of the PECO building.
She said birth certificates are the first step in getting voter IDs and often the biggest hurdle.
Cohen said clients are often disheartened to hear how long it takes for a birth certificate to come in when those clients are depending on it for housing or identification.
It is state dependent in terms of how long it takes for birth certificates to arrive.
The lawyers at today’s clinic will FedEx the request to the vital records bureaus of the state in question and include a FedEx envelope for returning the birth certificate in an effort to speed up the process. But in Pennsylvania birth certificates are taking four to eight weeks to arrive. Cohen said she hopes the state recognizes the urgency given the new voter ID law, but the lawyers running the clinics have no control over how fast the state operates.
Pennsylvania is quick in comparison to its neighbors. Cohen said New York is taking up to six months to return birth certificates and New Jersey takes about two to three months.
Exelon and HAP have been organizing the clinics together for some time. Exelon has brought in reinforcements from DELVACCA and Ballard Spahr. Other law departments represented at today’s clinic include Lincoln Financial, Comcast, AAA, Cigna, Independence Blue Cross and Chartis.
This isn’t the first time Exelon and Ballard Spahr have worked together on pro bono matters. They run a Wills for Heroes program that aims to provide wills for first responders.