“Thanksgiving, that’s today,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what happens tomorrow.”
A small army of social workers and volunteers were moving in a couch, setting up a table and stuffing red towels in the linen closet. “I served my country,” Maas said amid the activity. “It’s nice to know there’s some good people I served.”
Maas’s new home represents a happy turn, but it is also one that illustrates some of the challenges facing advocates as they try to find housing for homeless veterans, whose numbers are estimated at more than 60,000. It took Arlington social workers helping Maas nearly a year to secure a federal housing voucher under a program for veterans, a waiting time advocates say is not unusual, particularly in cases where identification has been lost.
“When you have no ID, no source of income, it all takes so much time,” said Kathy Sibert, executive director of the nonprofit Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, or A-SPAN. “There’s just a lot of bureaucracy that you have to go through.”
Maas was photographed last year for a Washington Post story examining the Department of Veterans Affairs’ progress in its high-profile vow to end veterans’ homelessness by 2015.
Wearing a wool U.S. Navy cap and an oversize green jacket, Maas was one of several homeless veterans who showed up at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington on a rainy December night for a meal regularly dispensed by A-SPAN volunteers.
Ashley Wilkerson, an A-SPAN case manager, took interest in Maas. “He’s sweet as pie,” she said. “He never approached anybody for help. He would say, ‘I’m fine.’ ”
But Wilkerson suspected he was not.
Maas gained computer skills as a data technician in the Navy, including aboard the USS Constellation. After leaving the service in 1980, he worked for a defense contractor near Andrews Air Force Base until being laid off around 1989.
“The problem is, your skills get old and the technology changes,” he said. Maas worked installing gutters and, when that job ended, he found work as a temporary laborer in Arlington. To be hired for the day, he had to be on site by 5 a.m., and with no car, he moved from a rented room in Prince George’s County into the woods along Four Mile Run. Then he threw his back out, making work difficult. His old home had been sold, and he had no place to go.
Wilkerson persuaded a reluctant Maas to seek help.
“I wanted to do it on my own,” Maas said. “I thought I could make it in the woods. But when my back went out, that was it.”
The first problem was getting identification. Although Maas saved some treasured items in storage, his ID was not among them. “He’s got his high school yearbook, but he doesn’t have his ID,” said Patricia Nance, an Arlington County Department of Human Services social worker who took on his case.