The number of homeless veterans across America increased in 2017 for the first time in seven years, when government officials began their nationwide push to help impoverished former service members.
The increase reflects estimates from last January, before President Donald Trump took office and any of his new housing policies were put in place. The annual point-in-time count from Housing and Urban Development officials found roughly 40,000 homeless veterans at that time, an increase of nearly 600 individuals from the same mark in 2016.
It’s the first setback for efforts to help homeless veterans since 2010, when then-President Barack Obama made a public pledge to “end veterans’ homelessness.”
The effort was paired with big boosts in funding for community intervention programs at both VA and HUD and saw some immediate results. The estimated number of homeless veterans dropped from more than 74,000 individuals in 2010 to fewer than 40,000 in 2016.
But in June, VA Secretary David Shulkin said he no longer saw the previous goal of zero homeless veterans as a realistic target for his department.
“I think what we learned in this situation is that being able to reach zero is not necessarily the right number,” Shulkin told Military Times. “There is going to be a functional zero, essentially somewhere around 12,000 to 15,000 that despite being offered options for housing and getting them off the street, there are a number of reasons why people may not choose to do that.”
The slight increase in veterans’ homelessness matches national trends. HUD officials said that for the first time since 2010, the overall homeless population increased in America, up about 1 percent from 2016 levels to nearly 554,000 homeless people.
And, similar to the national numbers, most of the increases in the veterans homeless population came from the West Coast. California and Washington combined saw a rise of nearly 2,500 new homeless veterans.
Meanwhile, the southeast part of the country — Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida — saw a decrease of almost 800 homeless veterans.
Of the 40,000 homeless veterans, almost 25,000 of them are living in temporary facilities. But that leaves more than 15,000 without any reliable shelter.
The impact of Trump administration policies on those numbers won’t be seen until late next year, when details of the January 2018 HUD point-in-time count are released.
But in recent months, homeless advocates have expressed concerns with VA plans to convert funds dedicated to outreach and assistance efforts to general purpose money, with broader authority for regional directors over how to use it.
In a letter to Shulkin in October, officials from the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans said they objected to “any conversion of special purpose homeless program funding for any purpose,” calling it potentially “catastrophic” to progress made in recent years by siphoning money away from homeless priorities.
But VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the goal of that move is designed to give local officials more flexibility.
“VA intends to realign funding from a number of programs, including our permanent supportive housing program (grants),” he said. “These programs are currently managed at VA central office in Washington, D.C., and this move gives control and management of resources to local VA facilities.”
“We have heard from many of our facility directors that they know their communities and the veterans they serve better than anyone else, and we agree.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.