Grace, 75, Once Homeless, Finds a Room to Rent. All She Needs Now Is an ID

Elizabeth Whitman
A mural on the eastern outer wall of the Justa Center.

Grace eyed the menu board hanging above the grill at Cafe 1010, with its offerings of breakfast burritos and bacon.

"I want all of it," she sighed, before settling on an egg-and-cheese croissant sandwich.

Last year, Grace became homeless for the first time in her life, after the senior-living apartment complex where she lived raised her rent by $50.

She was 74 years old at the time, a retiree living on Social Security who'd had a good job and a spotless record — not even a parking ticket, she told Phoenix New Times for a story published in September.

She asked New Times then, and again this month, not to use her real name, because her family still doesn't know that she was homeless.

For half a year, Grace slept in a bunk at the Central Arizona Shelter Services, or CASS, and spent her days at the Justa Center, a facility for homeless seniors near Phoenix's downtown area. Often, she would escape to Cafe 1010, a five-minute walk from the center.

In December, a woman living in Mesa who had connections with the Justa Center offered a spare room in her house for $500 a month including utilities. Grace, who is now 75, nets about $1,100 a month in Social Security, minus whatever gets taken out for Medicare. On the last Saturday in December, she moved out of CASS.

"I hated that place," she said fiercely, closing her gums on her croissant.

Her hair, cut short since September, rested in soft silvery curls against her head, and small hoops adorned her ears. She wore a hooded sweatshirt lined with faux shearling, and fiery leggings of hot red and orange.

Grace’s wheeled walker sat to the side of the table, and her face looked less drawn than it had in the fall. Periodically, she coughed sharply, remnants of an infection she blamed on "CASS crud" — the grime that accumulated on the ceiling of the shelter.

For a person who spent six months homeless in Phoenix, Grace is lucky. Connections and a person's kindheartedness led to an informal arrangement and a room she can afford. They got her out of a shelter where she felt unsafe and so stressed that she could feel her blood pressure "slamming against me inside."

But aside from the challenge of finding an apartment on her limited income, Grace still cannot apply for, never mind lease, her own apartment, because she has no valid ID. She has a Colorado license that expired in October, and her passport, which was from the 1960s, disappeared years ago.

Another wrinkle: 75 years ago, Grace was adopted. In Texas.

Without an ID, Grace, who was homeless for six months last year, cannot apply for a place of her own.

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Now, instead of hunting for apartments, Grace is on an exhausting quest to obtain the papers to prove her identity.

“She’s a really nice lady, and we get along really well,” Grace said of her roommate and landlord, whom she declined to name or put New Times in touch with, because she said the woman was having medical issues.

They split household expenses, like detergent and toilet paper. Down the street is a Mexican panadería. Two Walmarts and other stores are within bus distance. But Grace cannot, does not want to, stay there forever.

“I don’t want to share a bathroom with anybody, or a kitchen, or a schedule,” she said. “I just want my own place. I want my own life back.”

In Search of Identification

In a windowless box of a room in the back of the Justa Center, Ernie Shaver pulled a few pieces of paper out of a manila envelope.

Shaver, an attorney who has done pro bono work for the center ("Ernie the attorney," Grace likes to say, with a cackle) for about five years, was helping Grace prepare the application to send to a court in Lubbock, Texas, where Grace grew up, to unseal her adoption file.

In December, a caseworker for CASS tried to find adoption records for Grace in Oklahoma, where she thought she might've been born. But the caseworker found nothing, and so Shaver was trying Lubbock.

Those files were sealed, and neither Grace nor Shaver knew what would be inside. They didn’t even know if the court would be willing to open the file.

Historically, many states have sealed adoption records out of the outdated belief that women who relinquished, or were forced to relinquish, children born out of wedlock needed to protect their privacy, to spare both mother and child the perceived shame of illegitimate birth.

Grace didn’t know the name of her birth parents, or when, exactly, she was adopted. She was pretty sure, but not positive, that her older brother had been adopted several months before she was.

All Grace and Shaver knew was that unsealing those records was her best shot at getting the documents she needed to obtain an ID — and then, a home of her own.

click to enlarge The "CASS crud" that Grace says gave her a nasty, lingering cough. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
The "CASS crud" that Grace says gave her a nasty, lingering cough.
Elizabeth Whitman
In Arizona, as in other states, many landlords and rental agencies require proof of identification, like a driver's license or passport. To obtain an Arizona state ID, Grace needs at least two documents proving her identity and her Social Security number. She has none of the documents required to prove her identity; the only one within reach is her birth certificate.

These requirements are a direct result of 9/11, Shaver said, as Grace studied the papers that Shaver had prepared. After the attacks, government regulations for obtaining identification grew more stringent, he explained.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, a lack of photo ID “in a post-September 11 climate” became “a tremendous problem” for people who were homeless.

“Many states responded to the September 11 terrorist attacks by proposing laws that make it tougher to acquire a state-issued driver’s license or identification card,” a 2004 report by the center said. “Many laws require an applicant to prove ‘lawful presence’ in the United States. The majority of these measures are targeted at immigrants, but not only immigrants are affected.”

These requirements, which can vary by state, affect people who are homeless in myriad ways. They’ve been denied services and benefits, like food stamps and medical care, had problems with police, and been blocked from courthouses, the report noted.

For Grace, the lack of ID is the biggest obstacle in her path to applying for an apartment.

She finished reviewing the documents, catching one misspelling in her adoptive mother’s name. Then, she signed them, her right hand quivering slightly. Part of the package included an affidavit saying that she had been in a situation where she desperately needed the adoption file unsealed.

Later that morning, she caught the bus to downtown Phoenix, to get them notarized. Then, she mailed them to Lubbock, Texas.

From Texas to Arizona

After she was adopted at just a few months old, Grace grew up in Lubbock.

All she knew about her birth parents was that her father had been in the military. He left benefits to her and her brother, who died 40 years ago. Why she was adopted, what happened to her birth parents — she knows none of that.

Her favorite book is the epic Sarum, by Edward Rutherfurd, which traces several families over generations in history. In one of those families, Grace remembered, all of the men had short thumbs.

“It fascinates me because I have no family,” she said. She recalled that once, she went to her adoptive father’s family reunion, and became enthralled after noticing that all of them had the same ears.

In the 1960s, while still in Texas, Grace married and changed her last name. In 1969, she and her husband moved to Phoenix.

Then, as now, Grace lived with attitude and gusto. They rode motorcycles on the then-dirt roads of Apache Junction; in 1975, they joined a motorcycle protest against a proposed helmet requirement.

They also bought a house with four bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, and a double garage in Glendale — the county still has the records — and raised their kids here. But the marriage didn’t last, the house was sold, and in the mid-1980s, Grace went to visit a friend in Colorado, where she stayed until about four years ago, when she returned to Phoenix.

“I wish I hadn’t moved back here,” she said.

She never imagined she would be priced out of an apartment.

“It can happen to anybody at any time,” Grace said of becoming homeless.

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“At the beginning of it, I didn’t know what to think,” she said. As New Times reported in September, Grace decided to move out of her apartment in spring 2019, after the monthly rent went from $600 to $650. But she didn't have a new place to move to.

She packed linens and furniture and just about everything else she owned into a storage unit and moved into a motel for a week or two. Then, she spent a few days and nights at a bus stop, until eventually a bus driver told her about CASS, which took her several days to find.

“It can happen to anybody at any time,” Grace said of becoming homeless. In the past six months, she’d spoken with other people who had suffered financial crises, especially after accidents or illness that led to huge medical bills.

At times, Grace was ashamed of her own thoughts and words, which had been transformed by her stint of homelessness.

One time, she was browsing Facebook and saw that a person she went to high school with had posted photos from a cruise.

Her reaction was, “You’re not sharing, you’re bragging,” she remembered. “The whole time, I’m thinking, ‘There are people living in tents.’”

Grace herself thought about buying a tent. She hated being kicked out of CASS every morning by 7 a.m., per shelter rules. She hated the scalding showers, hated the “CASS crud.” Living in a tent, though, would have meant dealing on her own with trying to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, with finding a bathroom, and with protecting herself.

The hardest part of being homeless, she said, was waiting.

The Unsealed Adoption File

On Thursday, January 23, a packet from Lubbock arrived at the Justa Center.

Grace spent two hours riding the light rail and buses — “a pain in the butt,” Grace said of the trip — from Mesa to Phoenix.

Inside the envelope, there was no birth certificate.

Instead, Grace and Shaver found a certified copy of her adoption order. Grace learned that she was indeed born in Oklahoma and adopted in Texas, and that her birthday was a day later than she’d been told her entire life, including the birthdate on her expired Colorado driver’s license.

She learned her birth name, the names of her birth parents, who were married, and the date of her adoption, which, contrary to what she had believed, was also when her brother was adopted.

According to those records, the two of them had been neglected. They were abandoned in January 1945 and spent a few months in the care of a Mrs. W. T. Milam, before being adopted in May of that year.

Newspaper archives from that era in Lubbock suggest that Milam ran a home for about 50 children, “some of them from homes brokekn [sic] by death, some by poverty, some by human frailties and some handed directly down to the home from the courts,” according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in 1938.

Milam founded the home in the late 1920s or early 1930s, depending on which newspaper account you read. Explanations for how it all began also vary. She told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in April 1938, “The home was begun when I took into it nine children who had been deserted by their mother.”

click to enlarge Grace's bunk in the women's section of the Central Arizona Shelter Services in downtown Phoenix. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Grace's bunk in the women's section of the Central Arizona Shelter Services in downtown Phoenix.
Elizabeth Whitman
But in 1946, when the Lubbock Evening Journal covered the news that Mrs. W. T. Milam would be honored on national radio, the paper reported that she first took in a nine-month-old baby whose mother was ill. After the mother died, she took care of the girl for two years, until she found her “the right home.”

“Back in that era, a lot of adoptions were real sketchy,” said Shaver, the attorney. “A lot of odd stuff happened,” he said, mentioning borderline kidnappings and baby-market type dealings.

None of this is to say that baby Grace had been ensnared in an illicit transaction. But both Grace and Shaver want to know how and why she and her brother were born in Oklahoma but taken across state lines for adoption.

“If anything, it raises more questions than it answers along those lines,” Shaver said of the adoption records.

He said he was “very happy” that the court quickly and willingly opened the file. Grace said she was thrilled.

But for now, the certified copy of an adoption order is not enough for Grace to get a new ID. On Thursday, after getting the copy of the adoption order, she brought the documents to the DMV and was rejected.

“That’s not good enough,” the woman at the window told Grace.

“Fine,” Grace responded, even as she thought, “Fine, bitch.”

Now that they know where in Oklahoma Grace was born, Shaver plans to contact the county recorder’s office there to request her birth certificate. Grace also might have to get a copy of her marriage certificate, from Texas, to verify her name change, before she can get an ID.

“Looks like we’re gonna have to do a few more things, but I anticipated that possibility,” Shaver said. “We’ll work with her until we get it done.”