Ernie Maas could not help choking up as he took his first look around his new home Wednesday afternoon, a simple one-bedroom, federally subsidized apartment on North Glebe Road in Arlington County.
Maas, 61, who served in the Navy for seven years during and after the Vietnam War, has been homeless for about two years, living much of that time under a bridge on Four Mile Run.
“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.”
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.
This is a common problem for homeless people. “You need ID to get ID,” said Jan-Michael Sacharko, director of development for A-SPAN. “You have to establish you’re a resident of Arlington, which is a bit of an oxymoron — how do you establish you’re a homeless resident of Arlington?”
After many months, enough paperwork was collected to get Maas’s birth certificate from California.
Wilkerson obtained military records confirming Maas’s Navy service with an honorable discharge. She enrolled him into the Veterans Affairs health-care system, and Maas was able to get glasses, a hearing aid and a walker to help his back.
The social workers recognized that Maas would be an ideal candidate to get housing through HUD-VASH, a program run by the VA and Department of Housing and Urban Development that provides permanent supportive housing to homeless veterans, including those with serious mental illness, substance-abuse problems or other issues.
Under the Obama administration, more than 37,000 veterans have been placed in permanent supportive housing, assigned to case managers and provided with access to VA health care. Veterans pay 30 percent of their income to rent, and HUD’s Section 8 voucher covers the remainder.
A year ago, the VA trumpeted a 12 percent decrease in veteran homelessness, from 76,329 counted on a single night in January 2010 to 67,495 counted in January 2011. Figures for this year will be released next month.
“We have a sense that there will be a drop, but not quite that big,” said Susan Angell, director of homeless initiatives for VA.
Along with a homeless prevention grant issued by VA, the HUD-VASH program is given much of the credit for the decrease. But demand for the vouchers is high.
As of Nov. 15, 92 percent of all 47,997 available HUD-VASH vouchers are being used, “and the remaining will be in use soon,” according to VA spokesman Josh Taylor.
The vouchers are distributed to public housing authorities around the country based in part on estimates of the homeless population.
Homeless advocates have complained that the vouchers are often assigned to veterans who are the easiest to take care of, rather than those who have been on the streets the longest and have the most pressing need.
Angell said the department is trying to ensure that the vouchers are assigned to the most needy, at-risk and chronically homeless veterans. “We’ve been working very hard on that,” she said.
Funding for another 10,000 vouchers is included in the 2013 budget. “The good news is the initial allocations are arriving earlier this year,” Angell said. “We’re going to see some more improvement.”
Maas received one of several HUD-VASH vouchers made available for Arlington this fall.
Even with a walker, Maas moved Wednesday with a spring in his step that was absent a year ago. Reflecting on his time living in the woods, Maas choked up thinking about the time a Marine spotted him under the bridge and stopped to talk. “I thanked him for his service, and he thanked me for mine,” he said.
In the end, Maas said, it was the intervention of those who stopped to help that made the difference.
“I don’t know how I could have made it otherwise,” he said. “I’d be out in the woods now, watching the icicles form on the bridge.”