STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's a phrase you hate to hear and is hard to say - homeless veterans. New government estimates on homelessness show that on a given night, more than half a million Americans are on the streets or in shelters, a slight increase from last year. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The government counts the homeless every year on a cold night in January. The idea is that more people will come into the shelters that way and be easier to tally. Hugo Mendez may well have been one of those counted last January when he was homeless.
HUGO MENDEZ: You know where the riverbed is by Chapman and the 57 freeway? I was right there.
LAWRENCE: Mendez joined the Army in 1994. When he got out in 2000, he says he wasn't ready for civilian life. By 2008, he was homeless until this year, when the charity American Family Housing got him a place in Orange County.
MENDEZ: It's like the Ritz. Like, shower - I get to shower every day.
LAWRENCE: The project is called Potter's Lane. It's an ultramodern-looking building made from recycled shipping containers. Fifteen formerly homeless vets are living here in brand-new studio apartments - fully furnished, big windows and somehow warm inside the solid steel walls.
MENDEZ: I've never seen, like, a metal - basically, solid metal - yeah, it's, like, really nice.
LAWRENCE: Since we spoke, Mendez moved into a bigger apartment also run by American Family Housing, which is planning larger projects, stacking up the steel containers like Lego blocks in the city of Los Angeles. Brand-new apartments for homeless vets might seem extravagant, but in LA, it might be the only solution, with a less than 3 percent vacancy rate in its rental market.
That's one reason Los Angeles saw homelessness rise this past year. And with such a large population, Los Angeles alone accounted for the entire uptick in veterans' homelessness. If you took out the increase in LA, the number would've gone down nationwide, and that's what VA Secretary David Shulkin would like to focus on.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DAVID SHULKIN: The reason why we've been able to reduce the number of homeless veterans across the country by over 50 percent now since 2010 is we have found a formula that we think works and that we'll continue to both support with all of our efforts.
LAWRENCE: That formula was to work together with local organizations in cities and states across the country that know their communities, use an approach called Housing First, which means getting veterans indoors before trying to solve their other problems like substance abuse, and then massively fund it through HUD and the VA.
The VA declared in 2009, there would be an end to veterans' homelessness by 2015 - then it said the end of 2015. Those deadlines passed, and there are still about 40,000 homeless veterans on any given night across the country. But advocates say even with the deadline for that goal come and gone, the formula is still working. Melissa Tyner is with the Inner City Law Center in LA.
MELISSA TYNER: I don't think that the expiration of the goal really, you know, affected us here in our community. There was still this aim to try to raise veterans prior to this goal being said. And I think it might still be true, but we were homeless-veteran capital of the nation.
LAWRENCE: That is to say that LA has housed more veterans than many other states and cities combined. And the city did pass a $1.2 billion bond to build housing for the chronically homeless, including veterans. But the number of newly homeless vets is outpacing their efforts. Outside of the LA numbers, national advocates say progress is slow but steady. Kathryn Monet of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans says the Trump administration has increased funding and appears to be mostly staying the course.
KATHRYN MONET: Well, I'll tell you, the new administration has said all of the right things, and it seems like they're committed to maintaining some of the evidence-based practices. That said, I think I'd be cautious about, you know, some of the slower changes that we're seeing at VA.
LAWRENCE: Monet is talking about the VA's plan to give regional medical directors more control over their budgets. That won't affect money for homeless housing, but it could mean cutting back on the staff who support those veterans. Advocates as well as a bipartisan group of senators have objected. But this week, VA says it intends to go ahead with it.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.