Is the post office obligated to deliver mail to people who don’t have an address?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

The postal service has always had a way for people without addresses to get their mail. The same system that existed for pioneers in remote homesteads and mining camps that didn’t have street addresses is still in place today: general delivery. General delivery means that the post office will hold onto mail for someone to pick-up when it has been addressed to that person in care of the post office, rather than to the person at a street address.

The law describing the extent and limits of general delivery service is in Section 6.0 of the Domestic Mail Manual which says “general delivery is intended primarily as a temporary means of delivery…for transients and customers not permanently located.”[i] The terms of that section go on to state that general delivery is “available at only one facility under the administration of a multi-facility post office” (i.e. the main post office in town or in the county) and that the general delivery mail will only be held for thirty days.
Clearly, general delivery’s limits on timing and location can make it very difficult for homeless people to collect their mail.

There was an effort by several homeless men in Seattle to get general delivery extended to more convenient branch post offices or to at least obtain post office boxes, but the court determined that their First Amendment right to mail service was satisfied by the one site general delivery rule.[ii] The men’s complaint about not getting post office boxes arose from two rules in the Domestic Mail Manual. One requires that all applicants for P.O. boxes provide a street address in the application for a box.[iii] Since the homeless do not have street addresses, the rule seemed to prevent them from being able to get post office boxes even for a fee.

The Postal Service has an address exception for the homeless though. The exception allows the homeless to show signed photo identification; prove a connection to some social service office, employer or shelter; or be known to a postal clerk or the postmaster.[iv] The Postal Service’s administrative court, which first heard this case, concluded that the men who had signed photo ID’s issued by the homeless shelter had identified themselves well enough to get post office boxes.[v] The federal appeals court upheld that decision by the Administrative Law Judge.[vi]

The second P.O. box rule in this case was about payment for P.O. boxes. The homeless men believed that they should be entitled to free post office box service because their circumstances satisfied the criteria listed in the Free Box Service rule: physical location within the geographic boundaries administered by the post office, location had potential to get delivery service, post office chose not to provide delivery service, and customer didn’t get delivery service.[vii]

The Administrative Law Judge, and later the federal appeals court, held that the free box rule was really meant for people and businesses with fixed locations where the post office simply could not provide delivery services; it was not for transients and people who congregate in places that do not even have fixed addresses.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) submitted a friend of the court brief to the federal appeals court in this case to assert that the Postal Service had a legal obligation to provide all communities with mail service, despite government cost and convenience worries, particularly the homeless population which has such limited access to communication systems and which depends on the mail service to deliver the government’s own unemployment, workers compensation, welfare, disability, and medical assistance checks to them. The heart of their brief was the message that homeless people miss-out on all kinds of basic necessities and dignities largely because they lack addresses and that the Postal Service, by simply allowing free post office boxes or general delivery at their branches, could fix that problem.[viii]


[i] The Domestic Mail Manual is available on the Internet at http://pe.usps.gov/ .

[ii] Currier v. Potter, 379 F.3d 716 (9th Cir. 2004).

[iii] The rule in the Domestic Mail Manual, chapter 508 “Recipient Services” part 4.3.1(a), requires P.O. box applicants to complete Form 1093 http://about.usps.com/forms/ps1093.pdf in which the applicant has to identify himself by name, address, and phone number.

[iv] Postal Buletin 21877 issued September 29, 1994.

[v] In the Matter of the Petitions by Currier, Kerns, and Bar, Postal Service Docket # POB 00-209,00-271, and 00-272, December 29, 2000.

[vi] Currier v. Potter , 379 F.3d 716, 723 (9th Cir. 2004).

[vii] Domestic Mail Manual Chapter 508 “Recipient Services” part 4.6.2 “Free Box Service.” The Domestic Mail Manual is free online at http://pe.usps.gov/.

[viii] Currier v. Henderson, Brief of National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty as Amicus Curiae in Support of Appellants and Reversal, July 10, 2002. This brief is available on the Web at http://www.nlchp.org/content/pubs/Currier%20v%20Postal%20Service1.pdf .

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19 Replies to “Is the post office obligated to deliver mail to people who don’t have an address?”

  1. The requirement for two types of ID is itself the problem here. It appears not to have existed prior to “911”, when Congress enacted a mammoth package of mostly silly and useless regulations virtually none of them ever read. It certainly did not exist in 1982 when I applied for and rented my present PO Box while residing in another state. I could not do that now, and for what reason?

    Congress has power to scrap this regulation, and it should, along with all the other regs they passed in that infamous moment of panic, which violate the rights of honest Americans and barely inconvenience the terrorists and other criminals.

  2. The “2 forms of ID” rule can be satisfied in a number of ways.
    A letter from the local police indicating that the person is not currently wanted, or has a clear record, meets this requirement under federal law.
    Second form of ID is usually provided by the state, a drivers license or ID card, a public transportation ID card, even a library card, satisfy the requirement as they are all government issued documents.
    But, most homeless shelters have a scheme of receiving mail for the clients, that gives one a physical address to work with.
    I see no problems, only solutions.
    Cowthief@excite.com

    1. You’re an idiot. What seems like simple solution to you is not quite so simple for those who actually have to go through this particular ordeal. SeaSplat in fact explains some of the circumstances that some might be going through to make getting a po box a little more difficult. I, myself, am going through this ridiculous bureaucratic nonesense. I have recently moved to my current location and I am staying in hotels, motels, with recent acquaintances kind enough to offer a place. I am employeed so having a job is not an issues but apparently a pay stub is not a legitimate enough document to get a po box, which by the way has already rented. Now a week has past and I am still unable to get the key for my rented box nor am I able to get a refund for the 40$ I put down to reserve my box. Being in a city with no one willing to assist in anyway because you are a stranger to them has really made things a little more complicated. I have not stay in a homeless shelter since I’ve been able to afford accommodation on my own. Finding an actual permanent place to live is also difficult when there isn’t anything available in such an overpopulated area.

      Had to vent,
      Frustrated w/the System.

      1. I agree with you 100%. I have moved and as I do not have an address I can not get a p.o. box and they say general delivery is only 30 days and they have been sending my mail back. Without telling me prior. Also they chose in that 30 days which mail I would recurve and sent the rest back. I say mail fraud they say no. I want their jobs. I found this article and it days I am entitled to get mail general delivery. They say no can’t find a higher up so I guess I can no longer get mail.

      2. Here is the General Delivery rules in the Domestic Mail Manual. It indicates that each piece of mail has its own 30 day period beginning on the day it arrived at the post office.
        6.0
        General Delivery
        6.1
        Purpose
        General delivery is intended primarily as a temporary means of delivery:
        a. For transients and customers not permanently located.
        b. For customers who want Post Office box service when boxes are unavailable.
        6.2
        Service Restrictions
        General delivery is normally available at only one facility under the administration of a Post Office with multiple facilities. A postmaster may authorize more than one facility to offer general delivery service in accordance with customer and operational needs. A customer may use only one such location. A postmaster may refuse or restrict general delivery:
        a. To a customer who is unable to present suitable identification.
        b. To a customer whose mail volume or service level (e.g., mail accumulation) cannot reasonably be accommodated.
        6.3
        Delivery to Addressee
        A general delivery customer can be required to present suitable identification before mail is given to the customer. Prior to mailing, customers should contact the destination Post Office to determine the authorized facility or facilities and their applicable ZIP Code(s).
        6.4
        Holding Mail
        Each general delivery mailpiece is held for no more than 30 days, although a shorter time period may be requested by the sender.

      3. I have an idea: Let’s call on the postal service to make it possible for people to see online whether mail is waiting for them at the general delivery post office. We know that there is an electronic processing service for sorting and routing mail within the postal system. Maybe it wouldn’t be very difficult for them to add this dimension to their routing system. With something like that in place, people who do not have addresses or computers or an easy way to get to the general delivery post office can go to their nearest public library branch and check online once a week or so to see if anything is waiting for them. This isn’t a great perfect solution; it is just a first step. Do you want to try and get it implemented? Do you have other suggestions for the postal service? If so, send them to https://emailus.usps.com/emailUs/iq/usps/request.do?forward=emailUs.

  3. Not every person experiencing homelessness is a client of the shelter, for many reasons. 1. People couchsurf, changing residences frequently and with 1 or 2 night gaps that do not warrant meeting shelter requirements 2. Untreated mental health and/or substance abuse problems may prevent someone from being able to receive shelter services 3. Individuals who have been physically and/or sexually abused may be too traumatized to spend the night in a shelter with 40 strangers in the same room.

  4. I am being denied postal service. I don’t have a permanent physical address so have been using General Delivery. Was told today that I will no longer receive any such mail, nor am I allowed to rent a box. The postmaster in Wasilla, Brian Young, says general delivery is only allowed for 30 days. This is in direct violation of USPS policies and regulations. I am going to fight back by contacting Lisa Murkowski, and see if she can straighten Brian out for discrimination.

    1. Report this to the customer service office at the postal service. They have an online complaint form. It will take you through several steps. On the first screen, click on “postal facility” and then choose “other service” from the drop-down menu. After that, it will all be clear to you.

  5. I have mail big envelope from my husband in US date of send July 13 2016 but now no receive my envelope almost 15 days not come my address please bring my home because always I am waiting this is my address Room D 17 floor Block 1 Narine Cove 23 Hang Fu St Tuen mun thank you

  6. I have mail big envelope from my husband in US date of send July 13 2016 but now no receive my envelope almost 15 days not come my address please bring my home because always I am waiting this is my address Narine Cove Tuen mun thank you

  7. ok we have a situation here and maybe someone can help. We have a winter month shelter (oct 15-april 1) and the rest of the year it is a DROP IN CENTER that does breakfast (open from 6am-10am) and people go there daily to pick up mail and have done this for years. Recently the mailman has decided not to deliver mail to this place anymore. The postal investigator has apparently backed up the mailman on this issue and says they are not allowed to deliver mail to this address anymore for the homeless. This has affected people’s ability to receive food stamps, ssi, ssdi and other government benefits. Most of the people either DO NOT have ID or are unable to get ID because they dont have their paperwork necessary to get the ID so they can’t do general delivery. How do people that have no identification get their mail. the online mail delivery thing is NOT an option because of the ID issue they can’t use internet services at the library. Does anyone have any advice or know of any laws that can help us????

    Thank you in advance :)

    1. Are you saying that mail with your shelter’s street address is not being delivered? I believe that this topic is covered in Section 1.5 of Chapter 508 regarding Recipient Services in the Domestic Mail Manual. http://pe.usps.com/text/dmm300/508.htm Here is the text of that section:
      1.5
      Delivery to Individual at Organization
      1.5.1 To Address
      All mail addressed to a governmental or nongovernmental organization or to an individual by name or title at the address of the organization is delivered to the organization, as is similarly addressed mail for former officials, employees, contractors, agents, etc. If disagreement arises where any such mail should be delivered, it must be delivered under the order of the organization’s president or equivalent official.

      I also think that sections 1.1.1 and 1.4 of the Domestic Mail Manual cover the situation you have described:

      1.1.1 Delivery to Addressee
      Addressees may control delivery of their mail. Without a contrary order, the mail is delivered as addressed. Mail addressed to several persons may be delivered to any one of them.

      1.4
      Delivery to Addressee’s Agent
      1.4.1 Basic Standard
      Unless otherwise directed, an addressee’s mail may be delivered to an employee, to a competent member of the addressee’s family, or to any person authorized to represent the addressee. A person or several persons may designate another to receive their mail.

      Does your shelter have any lawyers on its board? I bet that one of them will get in touch with the post office and iron out this situation. If you don’t already know a lawyer, reach out to your nearest ACLU office.

  8. I work with homeless people who are often filling out apartment applications… They have a mailing address at the shelter, but apartment applications ask for Residency, and reason for leaving…

    -Are homeless people legally obligated to put “homeless” or “car”?
    -What CAN they put if they don’t live at the shelter? Besides, people in the community often recognize the street of the homeless shelter, and many people fear they will be denied housing if they reference that address.
    -Some people don’t have any friends or family who will let them use their address… can they just use their last residence and not elaborate on the time inbetween?

    Google searching hasn’t come up with any of this information… Your input would be appreciated!!!!

    1. Responses on applications always depend on the wording of the questions. When the question asks “reason for leaving” and the reason is anything other than “lease ended” a former tenant can write a very short (like 2-3 words) summary of what went wrong. Here are some examples: “health department violations” “unsafe environment” “family emergency.” If the question says something like “Where do you currently reside?” Then writing a word like “temporary” or “transitional” might satisfy the form. Sometimes these questions arise in rental situations because the prospective landlord wants to contact the previous landlord and find out whether this tenant caused any trouble or failed to pay rent. If that is the information they are after, then they are less concerned about the tenant’s homeless status than about the tenant’s behavior and ability to pay rent going forward. In those situations, prospective tenants can offer assurances to landlords. For example, someone who got evicted for non-payment of rent after not working for a period of time can show pay stubs or a letter from the Social Security Administration to demonstrate that now they do have a source of money for paying rent. Sometimes, it helps to have a caseworker running interference. This caseworker may be able to give a reliable testimonial about the prospective tenant’s honesty, cooperativeness, and ability to pay.

    2. It is NOT necessary to write “homeless” simply put the street address of the shelter without the name of the shelter and for reason wanting to leave that address one can put “want access to own cooking facilities.”

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