Veterans Affairs officials are behind in their goal of placing 38,000 veterans in permanent housing this year, and coronavirus is to blame once again.

On Friday, in remarks to the annual National Coalition for Homeless Veterans conference, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the department remains committed to the goal, first announced earlier this year as a way to jump start outreach efforts to veterans experiencing homelessness after the nationwide pandemic.

“We should be a third of the way through that goal now, but I think we’re at about 29%,” he said. “So we’re behind. I have been worried about it, because we’ve known since the beginning that we might fall behind because January was such a tough month with the Omicron [variant of Covid-19].”

Covid-19 cases spiked throughout America in the first few months of 2022. Veterans Affairs officials saw daily active cases across the medical system jump from about 10,000 in mid-December to nearly 78,000 in mid-January.

Housing advocates at the conference this week have noted that two years of pandemic restrictions have significantly impacted their operations, but many are hopeful that major gains can be made to help veterans facing homelessness as those challenges fade away.

And McDonough said he is optimistic, too, although he noted that reaching more veterans will require dedication from both his department and community partners.

“Getting 38,000 veterans into permanent housing, we’re not just going to try to do it,” he told a crowd of several hundred advocates. “We’re not going to set process goals to help us get towards it. With your help, this year, we’re going to do it …

“We won’t be able to prevent veteran homelessness in this tenuous economy without you, because this fight against veteran homelessness takes all of us across the country.”

McDonough said his remarks on the economy were in reference to inflation and rising housing costs, two more challenges that conference attendees have been discussing in recent days.

In 2020 — the last year a full point-in-time count was conducted by federal officials — the estimated number of veterans experiencing homelessness was about 37,200, a decrease of about 6% over the previous year.

Officials saw a 10% drop in the number of veterans using emergency shelter services from 2020 to 2021, but it is unclear how much of that is because of improvements in their housing situations or concerns about using the public facilities in the midst of coronavirus outbreaks.

McDonough said not all of the veterans officials hope to help this year are currently without stable housing.

In some cases, individuals currently living in transitional facilities will benefit from the moves. In other cases, advocates will provide assistance to individuals before they become homeless.

“We have pretty good data on knowing who may be at risk of falling into homelessness, and can reach them,” McDonough said.

McDonough added that he expects an update from senior staff on progress towards the 38,000-person goal in the next few weeks.

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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