WASHINGTON — Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson says he is concerned by the nationwide rise in homeless veterans last year, but not pessimistic.

“We’re not happy about it, but we recognize what is going on,” he said in an interview with Military Times on Wednesday.

“I don’t want to lose sight that numbers continue to go down in the rest of the country. In places where I have visited, they are begging for (veterans). There are jobs, there is housing. But it’s hard to get people to move. So we need to come up with local solutions.”

Carson’s comments came after a speech at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans’ annual conference, where hundreds of housing advocates gather for three days of discussion on best practices on outreach and support for veterans in distress.

This year’s event is the first in seven years that participants are faced with a backslide in their progress on the issue. Federal estimates on the number of homeless veterans nationwide declined from 74,000 in 2010 to about 40,000 in 2016, but saw a small rise last year.

“It is easy to feel discouraged to see that number tick up even a little bit, after you’ve been working for so hard for so many years,” said Kathryn Monet, chief executive officer for NCHV.

“It’s a setback for the movement, and it’s terrible for the veterans. But we don’t want to lose sight of what we have accomplished across the country. We don’t want to look at this number and say ‘we’re never going to get there.’”

At the group’s 2017 conference, Veterans Affairs officials announced they were backing off the department’s long-established goal of “zero homeless veterans,” calling it an unrealistic mark set by former President Barack Obama’s administration.

But VA and HUD leaders have insisted that change was more about establishing new metrics than abandoning the idea of ensuring housing and support for every American veteran. Carson reiterated that in his speech to the conference, calling it a responsibility for the country to care for its former military members.

Carson noted that nearly all of the increase in homeless veterans in the 2017 estimates came from three states, with California presenting the largest challenges. Without those areas, the nation saw a decrease in homeless veterans of about 3 percent.

“But we can’t just exclude that,” he told the crowd. “We have to focus on where the problem is occuring. And we have to figure out what we can do to alter the situation there.”

He blamed the part of the problem on high housing prices and “regulatory barriers” that President Donald Trump’s administration has worked to undo. Part of the push to help homeless veterans this year will be a closer examination of existing support programs, to see which can be copied or amplified to provide more benefit.

One of those is the popular HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, which provides vouchers and support services to veterans unable to afford rent costs. VA officials had proposed changes to the program late last year, raising concerns among advocates who have praised the vouchers as a key to getting thousands of veterans off the streets.

Carson praised the program as a “model” for interagency collaboration and said he has spoken to VA officials about continuing the vouchers uninterrupted.

He hopes to use those kinds of efforts in coordination with private sector advocacy as well. On Wednesday, officials from the The Home Depot Foundation announced at the conference that they reached their goal of investing $250 million in veteran-related causes two years early, to include a host of homeless assistance efforts.

“I’m optimistic, particularly because a lot of agencies are working together now,” Carson said. “That’s really the key. Finding ways to empower people, that’s a big part of it, but also finding ways to take down obstacles.”

The next round of estimates on the nationwide homeless veterans population is expected to be released in late 2018. But Carson said he already knows that the data will show that “more work still needs to be done.”

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.

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