Veteran Homeless Rate Drops 5 Percent Nationwide, Rises on West Coast

Homeless person holding out change cup with sign reading 'Please help a veteran. Will work for food.' (debbiehelbing/Getty Images)
Homeless person holding out change cup with sign reading 'Please help a veteran. Will work for food.' (debbiehelbing/Getty Images)

The number of veterans living in shelters or on the streets dropped by about five percent between January 2017 and January 2018 -- from about 40,000 to nearly 37,900 -- despite slight increases on the West Coast, according to the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs.

The decline followed a slight uptick in the previous year.

"Our nation's approach to ending veterans homelessness is working," HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson said Thursday in a conference call with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.

The new data also shows a 10 percent drop in homelessness for women veterans over the reporting period, from 3,571 to 3,219.

"It's not good enough, but it's better," Wilkie said, adding that continuing declines in the estimates for the number of homeless veterans on any given night will depend upon providing the services many homeless veterans will need once they find housing through the HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) voucher program.

"You get into an endless cycle if you don't address the other issues" that can leave a veteran on the street, such as drug and alcohol addiction, Wilkie said.

He called homelessness "part of a series of larger crises" involving suicide rates, mental health issues and opioid addiction among veterans.

"It's a difficult problem," Carson said, "because not every veteran is going to come to us and say: 'Please help.'"

Despite the overall decline in veterans homelessness, there were slight increases in West Coast big cities, said Norm Suchar, director of Special Needs Assistance Programs at HUD, who joined the call.

Wilkie cited West Los Angeles, where he said about half of the homeless veterans were from the Vietnam era and were suffering from "many problems building for 50 years."

The overall decline through January 2018 followed a slight increase in veterans homelessness in the first year of President Donald Trump's administration, from 39,471 to 40,020, according to HUD figures.

Unlike the previous administration, Wilkie and Carson did not attempt to set a date for ending the problem of veterans' homelessness entirely.

In 2010, President Barack Obama and then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki set the ambitious goal of getting all veterans housed by 2015.

The Obama administration's effort resulted in a dramatic decline, from 74,000 homeless veterans in 2010 to about 47,700 in 2015, but the number still stood at about 39,400 when Obama left office, according to HUD figures.

Carson would only say that the goal for the Trump administration was to get all veterans housed "as soon as possible."

"We owe it to our veterans to make certain they have a place to call home," Carson said. "We've made great strides in our efforts to end veteran homelessness, but we still have a lot of work to do to ensure those who wore our nation's uniform have access to stable housing."

The latest figures, the result of surveys of homeless veterans, showed that about 23,000 veterans, from the total homeless count of 37,878, were living out of shelters and about 14,500 were on the street in what HUD called "places not meant for human habitation."

Wilkie and Carson said that three states -- Virginia, Delaware and Connecticut -- and 64 communities nationwide had "effectively ended" veterans homelessness. The list of the 64 communities can be found here: https://www.usich.gov/tools-for-action/communities-that-have-ended-homelessness/

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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