A 61-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who has survived on the streets of Arlington for at least the past two years has a lot to be thankful for today. With the help of the Arlington Street People's Assistance Network and others, Ernie Maas now has a home.
"It's great to know there are so many good people in the world," Maas said in his new bedroom Wednesday. "Since I served my country, I feel good about that — I was serving for good people."
Volunteers and staff with A-SPAN and others had just finished moving in donated furniture and other items, along with a few bags of clothes and personal effects Maas had managed to collect and keep with him over the years — an old high school yearbook and boot camp book among them, he said.
Maas said he'd met many kinds of people over the past 30 years — not all of them nice. Originally from the San Francisco area, Maas served in the Navy from May 1973 to August 1980. He still wears his dog tags — the Social Security number is scratched out — because they make his service "official," he said.
He took a job with a Navy contractor in the Washington area in 1980, living in what he said was essentially run by a "slum lord." He's had several stints of part-time and temporary work since, including day labor. Eventually, he hurt his back — and things took a turn for the worse.
For the past two years, he's spent some time in the Volunteers of America Residential Program Center on Columbia Pike and, before that, in a wooded area south of Four Mile Run.
Maas benefited from programs at St. George's Episcopal Church in Virginia Square, which serves meals on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and at Central United Methodist Church in Ballston, . He's been in contact with A-SPAN for about a year.
Ashley Wilkerson, the 100 Homes Campaign case manager for A-SPAN and Maas' case manager, tried to get him on track to having a home. At first, he resisted.
"I wanted to do it on my own," Maas said. "I figured I could make it in the woods until I was 62 or whatever, and get some Social Security. But when my back went out, that was it."
A-SPAN worked with California and Virginia offices to re-establish Maas' identity. Dog tags aside, he didn't have a birth certificate or any other form of identification.
Once that was taken care of, A-SPAN and Arlington County worked with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies to secure what's known as a Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, or VASH, voucher.
Getting the voucher was a big step in getting Maas into a home. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment at the Gates of Ballston cost up to about $1,350, according to its website. The VASH voucher requires Maas to pay 30 percent of the meager income he receives through Social Security-Disability Insurance, or SSDI. Beyond that, the voucher covers his housing costs.
While Maas filled out paperwork Wednesday, A-SPAN and the Operation Renewed Hope Foundation moved in donated furniture and other items, including a couch, a table, several bedroom items — even two framed photographs donated by a local amateur photographer. A new bed will be delivered Friday.
"At least I know where I'll sleep tonight," Maas said, grinning wide. "And I have a bathroom — and a bathtub. I've wanted one of them for a long time. It will be good for my back."
Maas said he felt overwhelmed with the dramatic change in his life Wednesday. He took it in with smiles and stories, only briefly getting emotional when he stopped to talk about meeting a homeless Marine not long ago.
He said the location, near the Glebe Road and Quincy Street intersection in Ballston, would be convenient to Arlington Central Library and the Washington-Lee High School swimming pool.
"It's nice to know there's so many people helping me out," Maas said. "I couldn't have done it on my own."
In the county's 100 Homes Campaign, Maas is the 44th homeless person to move into permanent housing. A-SPAN has two more veterans in line to receive permanent housing in late November and early December, again thanks to VASH vouchers.
"Ernie, this is not going to go away," Patty Nance, a social worker with Arlington County, told Maas after settling in on his new couch.
"For Ernie, he worked really hard to get everything from scratch — a birth certificate, ID, income … He did it all," Wilkerson said. "So this means a lot."
Jan-Michael Sacharko, A-SPAN development director, said the effort to move Arlington's homeless into permanent housing ties into the need for a year-round comprehensive homeless service center. Case workers spend time building a client's profile so they are less likely to be turned down for housing — and knowing that those people are sleeping somewhere safe, rather than on the streets or in the woods, makes things easier.
"This is the fun day. Somebody is in," Sacharko said. "The work's not over, because now we've got to keep him housed. But this is the fun day."
At least 2,000 veterans are on the VASH waiting list in the greater Washington area, said Deborah Snyder, president of the Operation Renewed Hope Foundation. She called the number "appalling."
Nationwide, one in five veterans are homeless, she said.
"In the United States, we shouldn't have any homeless persons — and absolutely not veterans," Snyder said.