The number of veterans in homeless shelters dropped by 10 percent last year according to new data released by federal researchers on Monday, but officials warned the count may have been lowered by complications related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Even so, members of Congress hailed the news as another key step forward in their stated goal of providing stable housing for every veteran in America.
“This is encouraging news that suggests that the concrete measures we have taken [through legislation] are working and have helped drive down veteran homelessness,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif. and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual assessment of those experiencing homelessness — which is based on data collected in January 2021, 10 months into America’s coronavirus pandemic — about 19,750 veterans were experiencing “sheltered homelessness” one year ago.
That term refers to all individuals in emergency shelters or other temporary lodging, without any long-term housing options. It does not include individuals living on the street without any support.
In 2020, roughly 60 percent of all individuals experiencing homelessness in America lived out of emergency shelters, while the other 40 percent did not.
HUD officials that year estimated that on an average night, about 37,000 veterans were without a permanent place to sleep.
The latest report does not offer a full picture of veterans experiencing homelessness for 2021 because VA and HUD personnel were unable to conduct face-to-face interviews with individuals outside of emergency shelter environments, due to the pandemic.
And report authors warned that while the 10 percent decrease in sheltered homeless veterans appears encouraging, the numbers may not be completely reliable.
“The pandemic resulted in considerable changes to the capacity of homeless service providers,” they wrote.
“To reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, facility-based emergency shelters with congregate settings took measures to increase physical distancing by reducing the number of beds available for occupancy. In some cases, this reduced capacity was reported … in other communities it was not.
“Estimates of the number of people experiencing sheltered homelessness at a point in time in 2021 should be viewed with caution, as the number could be artificially depressed compared with non-pandemic times.”
VA officials downplayed the announcement on Monday, opting to omit the estimates in their official news release on the report in favor of longer-term progress on the issue.
According to the department, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness in America has dropped by nearly half since 2011, and more than 920,000 family members of veterans have been prevented from becoming homeless.
The HUD report said the total number of individuals experiencing sheltered homelessness in January 2021 was about 326,000, down about 8 percent from the year before.
Of the veterans in the group, almost all of them (97 percent) were living without any family members. In the non-veteran population, about 40 percent were accompanied by a spouse or child.
Lawmakers said even with the improvements, more needs to be done to help veterans still struggling with housing.
“While I’m pleased to see that progress is being made in reducing the number of homeless veterans in recent years, too many veterans still lack stable housing,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas and ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
“We have provided new resources and authorities for federal assistance to help veterans at risk of homelessness, and we need to make certain those resources are being used to make the biggest impact possible for homeless veterans.”
Veterans facing financial issues and the possibility of homelessness can visit any local VA medical center for assistance or contact the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-424-3838.
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.