WASHINGTON — The new Veterans Affairs administration is backing off the department’s 7-year-old target of reaching zero homeless veterans across America, but insists they aren’t giving up on the cause.

In an interview with Military Times this week, VA Secretary David Shulkin said he no longer sees zero as "the right goal" for his department’s efforts, and instead is focused on cutting the current number of homeless veterans down from about 40,000 to somewhere below 15,000.

For the last seven years, VA officials have focused on completely eliminating homelessness among veterans. The original plan was to reach the milestone by the end of 2015. Federal estimates say the number dropped by more than half from 2010 to 2016, but the goal of reaching zero remains far off.

"When VA Secretary (Eric) Shinkseki set this (homelessness) goal in 2010, he did the right thing," Shulkin said. "He set the most ambitious goal and timeline, and I think you need to do that.

"But I think what we learned in this situation is that being able to reach zero is not necessarily the right number. There is going to be a functional zero, essentially somewhere around 12,000 to 15,000 that despite being offered options for housing and getting them off the street, there are a number of reasons why people may not choose to do that.

"We do have to respect the wishes of people who are adults and able to make their own decisions."

Shulkin’s comments came after his address to the annual National Coalition for Homeless Veterans conference, which brings together hundreds of housing advocates each year to discuss strategies for dealing with issues of mental health care, veterans unemployment and affordable housing.

Attendees this year also talked about uncertainty surrounding the effort with the change in White House administrations. President Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget includes boosts in funding to help house veterans but severe cuts in other areas of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Shulkin said he is confident the budget decisions won’t harm the VA’s efforts to continue helping those destitute veterans.

"This is going to be a continued commitment," he said. "The issue of homelessness isn’t solved when you put a person into a home. It’s a constant, vigilant battle to make sure you maintain the conditions for them to maintain housing permanently."

He also defended the shift away from the zero target. As recently as last fall, Shulkin’s predecessor — then-VA Secretary Bob McDonald — said he was unsure when the VA could reach the zero milestone, but remained fixated on that goal.

Shulkin compared the change in philosophy to the VA’s handling of hepatitis C treatments within the department. Although VA officials hope to eliminate the virus in all patients, several thousand veterans have opted to skip treatments in recent years for personal reasons.
  

"I don’t think it’s giving up," Shulkin said of the homelessness goal. "This is learning along the way, and I think when you attempt to do something ambitious, you are likely to learn."

VA officials said they have already discussed the shifting targets with HUD and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness to better coordinate efforts. Other housing advocates said they are not alarmed by the change.

"How VA is talking about this now may be inartful, but probably a better depiction of where we all want to go," said Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

"There have been changes to benchmarks and criteria of how to define these goals. The biggest concern of ours is whether the public advocacy for reducing veterans homelessness continues."

The veterans homeless pledge was a key promise of Barack Obama’s presidency, and was followed by years of White House focus on the issue and routine funding boosts.

Since 2010, more than 480,000 veterans and family members have received housing assistance from the department. Federal officials have certified 52 metropolitan areas and three states — Virginia, Delaware and Connecticut — as essentially ending homelessness among veterans by providing adequate shelter and rapid response programs for every impoverished individual.

But Shulkin acknowledged that problem areas still remain. Nearly one-fourth of all the homeless veterans in America are living in California, and about another 25 percent are in six other states: Texas, Florida, New York, Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

He said targeting those regions will be a priority in the coming years, as officials look for ways to help hard-to-reach populations.

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