Want one of San Francisco’s new city-issued ID cards?

You’ll have to wait until July—or perhaps longer by the time you read this.

The promise that a city-issued identification card would open access to banks and connect immigrant, elderly and homeless residents with city services turns out to be more of a long-term plan than an immediate dream fulfilled.

First, once an applicant goes to the website and signs up for an appointment, the backlog means waiting about four months. Then, some 40 percent who make their way to the city hall basement office are turned away. The problem? Identity and residency documents that the city program doesn’t accept.

“Some people bring in shoeboxes of documents, and they want you to go through everything they have,” said San Francisco County Clerk Karen Hong, whose office administers the two-month-old program. “It takes 30 to 40 minutes to go through their shoeboxes and explain why each thing doesn’t meet the requirement.”

Applicants need to prove their identity—a valid passport for instance; and that they live in San Francisco—a recent utility bill for a city address will do. The rules include other options as well.

“They may have an appointment, but if they don’t meet the requirements they don’t get a card,” Hong said.

The city clerk’s office has issued about 27 cards a day since the program began on Jan. 15—for a total of 1,096 as of March 16. About 60 percent of people walk away with their city card after just 10 minutes. Most of the remaining 40 percent are turned away and some don’t show.

Courtesy of sfgov.org

On a recent Monday morning, Melissa Morales and three others waited in chairs set up in the hallway outside the basement ID office.

Morales, 37, has lived in San Francisco for five years and works as a housekeeper. She holds a Guatemalan passport, which she said she used to open a bank account with Wells Fargo. Morales brought her passport to prove identity, and a credit card offer from her bank to show her city address. A city clerk struggled to explain in English that the credit card offer wouldn’t suffice for proof of residency.

Walk two blocks to the Wells Fargo bank, she advised, and ask the bank to print her statement. But as Morales walked away, she said she would have to make another appointment.

“I can’t take more time off work,” she said.

Also in line were Maura Nuñez and her brother Santos Cañas. Nunez works as an elder home care provider and though she says she’s lived in San Francisco for 16 years, she also failed to have the right documents to prove it. Her and Cañas left unsure of whether they’d be able to make it back.

The card office’s two employees speak Spanish and Cantonese, and say they’ve used a telephone translation service to assist a few customers in Mandarin and one in Mongolian.

“Probably at least 80 percent of our customers are Hispanic/Latino,” Hong said.

Both city officials and community members agree the biggest hurdle is educating people about what documents to bring. They hope that more community outreach events will reduce the number of people turned away.

“One of the challenges we have is that folks coming in are not always reading the list of identity and residency documents and the dates associated with them,” said Sheila Chung Hagen, who worked on developing the ID program before becoming aide to Supervisor Campos. “We wanted to rely on community partners and media to inform people on what they need to bring.”

Hong said that with outreach they hope the 40 percent turned away will come down to 25 percent.

With the ID, immigrants and others such as the homeless can open bank accounts and get access to health services, library cards and Park and Recreation memberships.

Eight banks and credit unions currently accept the cards.

One client has used a city ID to open a bank account at the Mission SF Federal Credit Union on 3269 Mission St., according to Claudia Gomez, an assistant manager at the credit union.

“I don’t know if people know that they could use the ID to open accounts here,” Gomez said.

Gomez says she wants to ask their marketing department to start promoting the ID.

Lilly Lo, manager at the Northeast Community Federal Credit Union, said she’s stopped telling customers who need IDs to get them through the city.

“I send people down and they said it took too long, a few months,” said Lo.

“If I even go to the DMV, they can walk in and get a printout and mail me the card the same day,” Lo said. “It costs a little more but nobody’s willing to wait.”

On the second floor of Centro del Pueblo on a February evening, about 50 people piled their plates with food and listened to representatives from the San Francisco Immigrant and Education Network explain the logistics of the ID.

Juan Situ said many legal immigrants in the city’s Chinese community work under the table, and more identification will help them feel more secure.

“We won’t have to worry when the police come to check on our status,” she said through an interpreter.

Situ is among many who also want cards for her two children, who are seven and 12 years old, as a form of identity and emergency contact information.

Admekom Tesfay signed up for a June 4 appointment that night on the nonprofit’s laptop. Tesfay, 28, has been in the country for one year with no identification other than his local Eritrean ID in the Tigrinyan language, which doesn’t serve for much here.

Tesfay’s said he’d like valid identification sooner, but it will be worth the wait.

“It will be helpful. The ID will tell something about oneself,” he said through an interpreter.

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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  1. one way or the other its good to have n id if you don’t have one and its wort aslong as you provide the right documents needed have ur valid country pasport probe of the adrs you live at I went to get mine today may 22nd I had n apointment it took me no more than 10 minutes to get my city card I did like the service the 2 girls who work doing the making the id are so helpful so don’t get in line if u don’t have ur right documents

    1. Thank you. It’s good to know that when you do arrive with the right documents, everything moves quickly. Best, Lydia Chavez, ME

  2. this program seems like it could help so many- however the strict requirements leave too many people in the same situation they are already in. if somebody already has adequate identification why would they also need a city i.d.?

    something else needs to be done to help the folks that don’t have identification to be able to obtain something.

  3. Thanks for your comment — and you’re right, the clerk’s office uses Language Line Services.