SAN DIEGO – The number of homeless veterans across the U.S. declined more than 5 percent over the past year after a slight rise in 2017, the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs announced Thursday.
The decrease shows the federal government is making progress in its nearly decade-long efforts, but the problem poses a challenge in areas such as California where the cost of housing is high, officials said.
The number of homeless vets dropped to about 38,000 — about half of those counted in 2010, according to an overall count of the homeless taken in January.
As many as 64 communities and three states — Virginia, Delaware and Connecticut — effectively ended veteran homelessness. That means all homeless veterans in those areas had been offered homes, even if some didn't accept them.
Homelessness among female veterans fell by 10 percent from just a year ago.
"Our nation's approach to veterans' homelessness is working," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said.
The Obama administration in 2010 set a goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015, but Carson said the Trump administration will not set a specific date to reach that goal.
"The date would be as soon as possible, I don't think I could be more specific than that," he told reporters.
Officials largely credit the progress to an approach started under the Obama administration. It centered on a program called the HUD-VA Supporting Housing Program, which Congress boosted funds for in 2008.
It gives homeless veterans permanent housing while also providing them a case manager and clinical care services. The old way required treatment for mental health issues and drug and alcohol addiction before being able to qualify for a home.
Officials attributed the small uptick in 2017 largely to the high cost of housing in Los Angeles, which has the second-largest homeless population in the U.S. and the largest homeless veteran population.
HUD said veteran homelessness decreased from 2017 to 2018 in California.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said he plans to visit Los Angeles this week to meet with local officials and charities to discuss what further support is needed in their efforts. He would like to see an even bigger drop in the numbers.
"It's not good enough, but it is better," Wilkie said of 2018 numbers.
Veterans Affairs is working to identify vets who may have lost contact with the agency after years of living on the streets, Wilkie said.
Marine veteran Shaun Tullar, 33, said many vets do not realize what the VA can do for them. Tullar was experiencing post-traumatic stress from his time in combat in Afghanistan when he began using drugs after his brother, a fellow Marine, was killed in that country in 2012.
Tullar became homeless and cycled in and out of jail on drug charges until finding help through a program behind bars that connected him with the VA. He now lives at Veterans Village of San Diego, is sober and working toward finishing a college degree. He hopes to one day own a farm.
"A person cannot address fully any emotional needs if their basic needs of safety, food, water and shelter are not met," he said, adding that thanks to the support he's been given, "I have a very bright future."
This story has been corrected to show that veteran homelessness — not overall homelessness — dropped from 2017 to 2018 in California.