Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said he expects to see significant progress soon in efforts to reduce homelessness and suicide among veterans, despite the complexity and long-term challenges of both issues.
In a wide-ranging interview with Military Times just before Veterans Day, McDonough said department leaders are pleased with recent progress on both issues, two of the top policy focus areas for VA staff over the last decade.
But he also noted that the recent improvements are not enough, and veterans cannot wait decades for the problems to be resolved.
In September, VA researchers announced that the number of veterans suicides in America fell to fewer than 17 a day in 2020, the lowest rate since 2016. The total number of veterans who took their own life was down nearly 10% from 2018 to 2020, a decrease which they attributed to more mental health resources and intervention programs for veterans.
Earlier this month, federal officials announced the number of homeless veterans dropped by more than 11% from the start of 2020 to the start of 2022, a significant decrease after several years of minor changes in the total.
Officials also attributed that to years of focused efforts on assistance programs for veterans.
The number of homeless veterans has fallen by about 55% since President Barack Obama in 2010 announced a goal of ensuring housing for every veteran in America. Despite the progress, an estimated 33,000 veterans are still without stable shelter on a typical night.
McDonough has announced a goal of housing 38,000 veterans this year (about 31,000 have been helped so far) and said he expects that to show some immediate impact on the problem.
“I feel like veteran homelessness is one that we will see resolved in a very concrete way in a matter of years, rather than decades,” he said.
“We’ll see if that 38,000 has continued the appreciable decline in overall homeless vets. My hunch is that it will. And my hunch is that there will still be challenges too, because finding housing is difficult in this country.”
For both suicide prevention and housing assistance, McDonough said the key is to “shorten that period from distress to care” for veterans. That means more contact with veterans before they reach a crisis point, and more emergency resources to help them in times of distress.
“On suicide, there’s just no question that we have to get to zero,” McDonough said.
“So this will be our number one clinical priority until it’s zero,” he added. “We’re not going to rest on this. And you see the kind of progress we’re making. I think we can accelerate that progress.”
But he also noted that solving both problems will involve more than just reforms within VA.
Mental health specialists and affordable housing are in short supply across the country, McDonough said. Addressing those problems for veterans will have to include improvements for the American public as a whole.
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.