Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough on Monday acknowledged the possibility of a spike in veterans experiencing homelessness later this year and vowed “to do everything we can to prevent that from happening” in coming months.

“Our country’s most sacred obligation is to prepare and equip the troops we send into harm’s way, and then to care for them and their families when they come home,” he said during a speech at the annual National Coalition of Homeless Veterans conference. “Veterans homelessness is our nation’s single greatest point of failure in fulfilling that sacred obligation.

“Every person should have a home. Every veteran should have a home.”

McDonough’s comments came just days after advocates testified before Congress about their fears of a sharp rise in veterans facing homelessness in coming months as the coronavirus pandemic winds down.

“As communities turn the corner on infection rates and vaccinations increase, many are starting to lift emergency declarations, tighten access to unemployment benefits and wind down state-level eviction, foreclosure and utility shut-off moratoriums,” said Kathryn Monet, chief executive officer for NCHV.

“This could result in an unprecedented wave of homelessness. And that’s worrisome.”

In March, officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that the average number of veterans without stable housing across the country rose slightly from 2019 to 2020, to about 37,250 individuals.

Those figures were calculated before pandemic restrictions went into effect across the country. The impact of those business stoppages and social distancing requirements won’t be fully known until this fall, when the January 2021 homelessness estimates are released.

McDonough, in pre-recorded remarks for the event, promised to work before then to ensure that veterans and family members facing potential financial distress are helped, starting with the department’s campus in west Los Angeles.

After legal fights concerning the nearly 400-acre site which stretched over decades, Veterans Affairs officials announced plans to build 1,200 permanent supportive housing units there. But McDonough acknowledged that only 54 have been built so far.

“We have to move faster,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons for the delay, and we’re going to solve them. We’re going to drive progress on a successor master plan. I’ll sign it before year’s end.”

Los Angeles County officials estimate that more than 3,900 veterans experiencing homeless live in the region, representing about one-tenth of the country’s entire population of veterans experiencing homelessness. Advocates have noted that fixing the problem there will not only bring down the national numbers but also serve as an important model for the rest of America.

McDonough noted that VA staffers have distributed about 31,000 smartphones to veterans facing financial distress over the last year, to help keep them connected to medical staff and support services amid the pandemic. Another 30,000 are expected to be handed out in coming months.

The secretary also said that staff are working to expand the number of landlords who will take federal housing vouchers for homeless veterans, as well as expand the department’s budget to increase the number of staff focused on the issue.

NCHV conference participants will spend this week discussing those topics and best practices in their communities to deal with the issue, with a particular focus this time on post-pandemic complications. Monet said she is wary of the challenges but optimistic about the path forward.

“This is a year,” she told conference participants at the start of the week-long conference. “It’s a year to turn this once-in-a-lifetime crisis into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a brighter future for veterans, a future where none have to make the hard choices between putting a roof over their head or food on the table.”

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.

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