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Catholic Community Services of Utah has launched an ID program intended to help people experiencing homelessness access needed services and distinguish the needy from a criminal element that preys on them, officials say.

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah nonprofit organization hopes its new client identification system will give people experiencing homelessness better access to services and enhance safety for service providers and clients.

Catholic Community Services of Utah has been implementing the identification system for six months and on Tuesday announced its launch, said Dennis Kelsch, CCS's homeless services director.

"We're announcing this now because we feel we've used them on an experimental basis for a few months. We feel like they're accepted. They're used by the clients," said Kelsch.

The Salt Lake City Police Department likes the initiative because it helps officers differentiate between people accessing services in search of help and the criminal element that preys on people experiencing homelessness, he said.

"Usually, the crowd that's here for reasons other than trying to get back on their feet, nefarious actions if you want to call it, they don't want to get their face on a card. They don't want to get an ID, and they usually don't have one," Kelsch said.

CCS now requires people seeking services at its Weigand Homeless Resource Center to present the ID cards at the front desk. The photo IDs, which have bar codes, are swiped and workers compare photos against the person presenting the card.

The day center serves 450-500 people a day, providing a wide array of services such as case management, storage, laundry, showers, a computer lab and haircuts. The facility is also a safe place to stay during the day.

The cards help improve safety at CCS's facilities, both for clients and staff.

"We now go out to the yard periodically and ask 'Could we see your Weigand Card?'" Kelsch said.

If people don't have one, they are asked to leave the yard, he said.

"It keeps clients safer, and it's certainly a benefit in that area for the staff that they don't have to deal with some people who really aren't there for a good purpose," he said.

Acting Salt Lake Deputy Police Chief Josh Scharman, in a statement issued by CCS, concurs.

"The identification cards issued by Catholic Community Services are very beneficial to the homeless community by helping providers recognize legitimate homeless clients in need of service from the criminal element. Several criminal groups have infiltrated the area and prey upon the needy,” he said.

The system also improves CCS's record keeping. Agencies that receive funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development are required to track people who seek services and the types of services they receive through the Homeless Management Information System. HUD uses the information for funding decisions and to help local governments and nonprofit service providers create or refine the services they offer.

While the IDs cannot be used for government purposes, such as boarding an airplane, there have been other benefits, Kelsch said.

Some merchants have accepted the cards as a second form of ID when writing checks.

The cards have also helped Utah Transit Authority and the Gateway security officers return wallets to people who have lost them.

"That's been a nice thing. It's saved a lot of people from losing important documents," he said.

The ID cards could also be used by other homeless services providers, but that is their choice, Kelsch said.