Keith Church left the Navy in 1974 after a two-year stint, worked for years as a maintenance mechanic and never considered asking for veterans benefits.
But in December, Church, 54, was jobless, coping with health problems and on the brink of homelessness - "couch surfing" with friends, he says - when he turned to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for help. Within a few months, he moved into an apartment, thanks to a VA program that started in Maryland this year to help homeless veterans.
"I don't know how I would make it without the VA," he said. "I was at the bottom, health-wise and mentally. They are my only source now for everything. Slowly but surely, I am getting back on my feet." He is working with a VA case manager and is volunteering most weekdays at the VA hospital in Baltimore.
The Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program uses vouchers to help homeless veterans move into rental units.
"The whole idea is to take these veterans from poverty and homelessness and give them the health and support they need," said Patricia Lane, the VA's coordinator for health care for homeless veterans in Maryland. "These housing vouchers are the blessing at the end of a long-walked road for these vets."
The VA hospitals in Baltimore and at Perry Point in Cecil County serve as the gateway to the assistance program and screen veterans to determine their eligibility. "This program is so well-received that landlords are actually calling and asking me for VASH folks," said David Mahaney, director of housing and community development for Cecil County.
Baltimore County is overseeing 105 vouchers worth about $750,000 annually, and Cecil County has 70 vouchers worth about $470,000, officials said.
Lois Cramer, administrator at Baltimore County's housing office, said she has assigned more than 80 vouchers and expects to use all 105 by summer's end. Cecil has issued more than 50, Mahaney said.
"Often, these men and women are just out of sync and need the stability of home and ongoing case management," Cramer said.
Typically, the veteran pays 30 percent of their income for rent, with the voucher picking up the remainder. The program has helped a 31-year-old single mother with a $7-an-hour job and $117 in monthly veterans benefits who has just leased an apartment, and a 25-year-old married father of two coping with a disability. He moved his family into a Sparrows Point home within 60 days of applying for a voucher. He pays $318 of the $1,048 monthly rent, with the voucher picking up the difference.
"The tenants usually choose a location close to employment, transportation and health care," Cramer said.
Census data shows that 71,627 veterans live in Baltimore County, with about 3.6 percent of them living below the poverty line. Nationwide, veterans make up a third of the homeless population, according to the VA.
"These vets don't want a handout, but they need help," Cramer said.
The need will continue, particularly as veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said.
"The things we saw overseas come back and bother us later in life, especially the Vietnam vets," said Church, the Navy veteran. "When they start coming back from this war, look out."
The voucher program streamlines what can be a complicated housing process, said Meg Ferguson, who coordinates veterans affairs in Baltimore County. "Veterans are proud, and it's difficult getting them to accept help," she said. "The good news is that a lot will work their way out of a crisis, turn in the voucher and transition into another program. Then the voucher can go to another in crisis."