WASHINGTON -- They served their country in uniform -- many on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now that they've returned home and rejoined civilian life, an alarming number of veterans have found themselves on the streets and living under bridges.
Veterans Affairs Department officials are making progress on their commitment to end homelessness among veterans, Deputy VA Secretary W. Scott Gould told American Forces Press Service, striving to achieve that goal ahead of its original 2015 timetable.
"This is a big, bold goal," Gould said of the pledge President Barack Obama and VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki announced in 2009.
"What I see there is the president and secretary willing to do something that rarely happens in government, which is to set a clear, measurable and time-phased goal -- zero homelessness by 2015 for our veterans -- and then apply the resources, the planning and the leadership to make that happen," Gould said.
Shinseki has become even more forward-leaning on the issue, vowing to achieve those aims a year ahead of schedule.
"As the president has said, 'We're not going to be satisfied until every veteran who has fought for America has a home in America,'" he told the Marine Corps League in February. "If you wonder what I will be working on for the next several years, this is it. We will end veteran homelessness in 2014."
Also last month, Shinseki told the Disabled American Veterans that major progress has been made. The number of homeless veterans has dropped from about 195,000 six years ago to about 76,000, he reported. VA is working to bring that figure below 59,000 by the end of June 2012, and ultimately, to zero.
VA's fiscal 2012 budget request includes $939 million -- up more than $140 million from last year -- for programs to support this mission and build on progress made.
A comprehensive review is under way to identify vacant or underused buildings in VA's inventory that could house homeless and at-risk veterans and their families, Shinseki told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee earlier this month.
So far, VA officials have identified 94 sites that, once renovated with funds allocated by Congress, could add another 6,300 housing units through public-private ventures using VA's enhanced-use lease authority, he reported. With this authority scheduled to lapse Dec. 31, Shinseki has urged Congress to provide the reauthorization needed for VA to continue increasing housing for homeless veterans and their families.
Meanwhile, the most flexible and responsive option remains the Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing voucher program, Shinseki said. The program combines Housing Voice Voucher rental assistance for homeless veterans with case management and clinical services by VA.
Shinseki said it's the only option currently available to provide housing for homeless veterans with families.
Gould, attending the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo., earlier this week, recognized that homelessness is more than a housing issue and typically stems from health and mental-health problems.
"Homelessness is really a symptom and the end step in a long stage of deterioration," he said, citing issues ranging from job loss or economic duress to lack of access to health care, relationship problems or chemical dependence.
"So we have invested a lot in improving access to the health care that prevents homelessness," Gould said. He cited growth in VA's Veterans Health Administration budget to provide more proactive, preventive mental health and psychological counseling, as well as other health care.
This care helps veterans tackle problems at their root and introduces them to the broad array of programs in place to help in preventing them from slipping into homelessness, he said. "Once they are (at VA), we have the tools and capabilities to be able to help them," he said.
Gould personally has witnessed the homelessness problem. On a cold, wintery night in late January, he joined Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and Interagency Council on Homelessness Director Barbara Poppe, walking the downtown streets of the nation's capital as part of a national count of homeless persons and families.
"It was a striking experience," Gould said of his opportunity to meet personally with homeless veterans during HUD's national "Let's Make Everybody Count!" campaign.
Equally striking, he said, is that when he asked a homeless man he met if he was a veteran, the man responded that he wasn't -- "but I wish I were, because of all the great programs you have."
Defense leaders have joined VA and the president in calling veteran homelessness a scourge on America that must be addressed.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been particularly outspoken on the issue, concerned that a new generation of combat veterans is slipping into the same situation plaguing too many of his Vietnam-era contemporaries.
Mullen said he's troubled by the number of homeless veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan he has met during his visits to Veterans Affairs hospitals.
"And they are every bit as homeless and every bit as tragic as any homeless vet we've ever had," Mullen told a Hudson Union Society group in April 2009. "We as a country should not allow that to happen."
At a National Guard family program volunteer workshop last summer, Mullen shared the story of meeting a young homeless veteran in Los Angeles who had served in both operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Mullen said the veteran told him, "I gave a 100 percent; I'd just like 100 percent back."
Working with their federal, state and local partners in both the public and private sectors, Gould said VA is committed to providing veterans exactly that.
"Veteran homelessness is not solved by VA alone, but with our HUD partners in federal government, our state governments' veterans administrations and nongovernmental organizations and local governments," he said. "It is everyone working together."