Las Vegas charities ask needy for IDs before giveaways

LAS VEGAS Thu Nov 24, 2011 4:12pm GMT

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Some Las Vegas charities giving away turkeys and toys this season have started asking families to show state identification cards to get a slice of holiday cheer.

The charities say the controversial move to require Social Security, state identification cards, or birth certificates, was needed to prevent fraud born of desperation in a state at the centre of the country's financial crisis.

"If you would take a look at the number of kids that got toys (at charities during Christmas) in this valley, it would exceed the number of kids in the valley," said Major Robert Lloyd, director of the Salvation Army of Clark County.

"We're really anxious to preserve the magic of Christmas for children, but we need to screen the adults," Lloyd said, adding that some families were either "double dipping" or coming in from out of state to get donations.

Charities cited instances of parents reselling donated bicycles blocks from a charity that gave them away, or families getting several holiday turkeys. Some adults, they said, were showing up for handouts with children from other families.

These are some of the issues Las Vegas-area nonprofit organizations said they were trying to avoid as they geared up for the holiday season in a state especially hard hit by the bursting of the housing bubble.

Unemployment in the state was the highest in the nation in October at 13.4 percent, and Nevada continued to have the country's highest state foreclosure rate.

Critics of the ID policy say undocumented immigrants, as well as some homeless people who may be less likely to have identification on hand, and who may be needy, may be left out.

The critics, fearing the rules could have an exclusionary effect, noted immigration laws such as one passed in Alabama they said could unintentionally limit city parks or pools to those who can prove they are legally in the United States.

But the nonprofits said charities must adopt such practices in response to the unexpected results of an ailing economy, and that overall giving still outweighed any unintended consequences.

CHANGE HIT AS RECESSION KICKED IN

Fuilala Riley, chief operations officer for HELP of Southern Nevada, one of the key nonprofits involved in holiday season giveaways, said she and other colleagues started noticing a change in the crowds seeking help about four years ago, just as the recession kicked in.

She said charities began seeing cars arriving for giveaways with licence plates from neighbouring California, and "hundreds of families" came with larger than usual numbers of children.

"There is so much more need than ever before," Riley said. "Unfortunately ... people are desperate and are doing things they wouldn't normally do."

Her agency started asking families for Social Security cards and birth certificates for their children about four years ago to prove they were related. The Nevada ID was added this year. The goal was "to circumvent what we saw as fraud," she said.

But the policy has come under criticism, especially after an e-mail sent to members of a local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association detailed information on the holiday giveaways, including the ID policy.

"I've never seen nonprofits asking for papers to give out a turkey. Am I over-reacting?" one association member wrote to her colleagues, adding she was appalled by the requirement.

Peter Ashman, a former head of the chapter, said he had called the county representative who circulated this season's charity information and requirements, and was told the ID rule was the policy of the charity groups, not the county.

"She hadn't thought about the consequences of the policy," he said of the representative. A county spokesman confirmed the policy had been decided by the charities.

The nonprofits involved -- the Salvation Army, HELP of Southern Nevada and Lutheran Social Services -- said they could be flexible if a needy family or person came to their doorsteps without identification during the holiday season.

They said they would help those who had lost their IDs, a common problem among the homeless, to obtain replacements.

(Reporting by Timothy Pratt; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)