WASHINGTON — Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson told advocates for homeless veterans that planned budget cuts to his department won’t upset efforts to find housing for destitute former service members, despite opposing assertions from critics.  

"Our president made a promise that the health and well-being of our veterans would be a top priority," he told nonprofit and community leaders gathered for the launch of the annual National Coalition for Homeless Veterans conference Tuesday. "I take that promise very seriously."  

His comments came just moments after the advocates spoke about uncertainty for efforts to help homeless veterans with the change in presidential administrations, and worries that the progress of recent years could be derailed by budget cuts and a lack of government focus.

According to HUD estimates, the number of veterans without permanent housing dropped by nearly half from 2010 to 2016, with fewer than 40,000 individuals on the streets at last count.

That progress came after an intense focus from the White House and Veterans Affairs officials on the issue, and annual increases in HUD funding for housing vouchers and assistance programs.

President Donald Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget would boost VA spending by almost 6 percent but trim HUD funding by almost 15 percent, a $7.4 billion loss for the department. When questioned about the budget cuts by Military Times after his speech, Carson again promised it won’t mean fewer services for veterans.

"There are a lot of things we’re doing to remove inefficiencies from the system," he said. "But the last thing we’re going to do is compromise our homeless veterans."

Carson told advocates that federal officials need to shift their thinking of federal money from handouts to "seeds to stimulate private investment," saying that will provide more sustainable community solutions for problems like homelessness.

"In the old model, the government comes, plops down a bunch of money, says, ‘Build this place for veterans,’ and moves to the next project," he said. "You can see where that has gotten us, not very far.

"The new model is to bring in private interests, because you can get a heck of a lot more done. And you have people more interested in maintaining that community."

Those remarks appeared to support the existing, popular HUD-VA Supportive Housing stipends that award rental costs for private housing, though Carson did not specify them in his speech.

Earlier this month, Carson drew criticism for comments about a temporary housing complex for veterans which he described as "comfortable" to the point of discouraging residents from moving out.

On Tuesday, Carson dismissed the controversy as a media creation and a distraction from his commitment to veterans.

He also offered a full defense of the "housing first" policies for homeless veterans, a philosophy embraced by housing advocates but still criticized by some conservatives.

The policy goes against previous rules requiring veterans to be sober or find employment before receiving housing assistance, and instead provides stable shelter first followed by an emphasis on fixing those other issues.  

"When you’re looking at the data, you must be objective," he said. "People who live under a bridge frequently over the course of a year end up in an emergency room. And a week’s hospital stay can cost more than putting them in a nice place for a year.

"That’s why housing first initiatives make sense, not just morally, but practically."

The 2017 HUD estimates of homeless veterans are scheduled to be released this fall. Carson told advocates they need to work against complacency, saying the work done on the issue in recent years is impressive but also unfinished.

"It’s a tragedy that a nation as prosperous as ours still sees people who have served our country forced to live on the street," he said.

Officials from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness said nearly 50 major metropolitan communities in 27 states have declared an effective end to veterans homelessness within their borders in the last few years, including all of Virginia, Connecticut and Delaware.

 
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.