Federal officials for the first time will extend veterans housing grants to 26 Native American tribes, a move that could speed finding shelter for this previously underserved community.

The $5.9 million in Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing grants is expected to aid about 500 veterans in coming months, but the significance of the move goes beyond those individuals specifically helped by the funding.

It also for the first time pulls Native American communities into the wider effort to end homelessness among all veterans, a push that has helped about 27,000 veterans get off the streets in recent years but appears to have fallen short of a public goal to reach zero by the end of 2015.

Officials with the Housing and Urban Development Department estimate the homeless veteran population nationwide to be just under 48,000. Less than 3 percent of that total are Native American veterans.

But federal officials said that until now, veterans on tribal lands were not able to receive funds through the popular VASH voucher program. Under the change, individuals on 26 tribal lands will be able to use the grants to obtain new housing or stay in their current homes, if they can show need.

The change required a push from HUD officials and a funding change from Congress in fiscal 2015. HUD Secretary Julián Castro said they spent the last several months working out program details and reaching out to community leaders about the offerings.

"I'm confident with this we can continue to make strong progress on ending veterans homelessness," he said.

The new announcement also coincides with renewed focus from his department on assistance programs for tribal lands, including an in-depth housing survey that is underway.

Since 2008, more than 79,000 of the HUD-VASH vouchers have been awarded to veterans. Officials estimate at least 90,000 individuals have benefited from the program.