The number of homeless veterans nationwide dropped dramatically last year, but advocates say the U.S. remains far from the White House's stated goal of completely ending the problem.

According to estimates announced by federal officials Monday, fewer than 40,000 homeless veterans remained on the streets at the start of this year, down about 8,000 individuals from the same time in 2015.

That's a 17 percent drop in just one year and a reduction in the homeless veterans ranks of about 50 percent since the administration announced a new focus on the issue in 2010. President Obama is expected to highlight the progress in a speech later Monday at the annual Disabled American Veterans convention in Atlanta.

But the lower figure still leaves tens of thousands of veterans without reliable, permanent housing, despite an intense six-year interagency push to solve the problem.

"I don't know when we'll get to zero," Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald told reporters Monday. "We'll keep working as hard as we can.

"But I've spent a lot of time talking to veterans on the streets. I've spent a lot of time in shelters with veterans. Any one life we save is a worthy goal. Any one life we get into a home, eliminate their substance abuse, I consider it a success."

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro called the work thus far "an unqualified success" even if more work remains.

Both McDonald and Castro said the goal of ending veterans homelessness by 2016 didn't take into account legal and logistical challenges, which required several years to unravel. But both men said they are encouraged by the rapid progress and the prospects for reaching the zero goal in coming years.

At least two states — Virginia and Connecticut — have ended chronic veterans homelessness, providing enough resources and temporary shelters to quickly house any veteran who falls into financial distress.

Major cities like Houston, New Orleans, Salt Lake City and Phoenix have also announced reaching the milestone of effectively ending homelessness, with numerous others saying they could reach that status soon.

HUD and VA officials said that new housing and health care assistance programs unveiled by their departments in recent years helped more than 157,000 individuals in fiscal 2015 alone, and that more than 360,000 veterans and their relatives have been permanently housed or prevented from losing their homes through the initiatives.

Since 2008, more than 85,000 vouchers have been awarded through the department's Supportive Housing voucher program.

McDonald said the focus on ending homelessness among veterans has also led to a host of new partnerships among federal, state and civilian groups, all of which will be criticial in building on the progress thus far.


Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.