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Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan speaks to members of the media during the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans conference on Wednesday.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan speaks to members of the media during the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans conference on Wednesday. (Leo Shane III / Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON -- Officials will have to find housing for about 60 homeless veterans every day for the next 32 months to reach their self-proclaimed deadline to get every former servicemember off the street.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan noted that statistic as a sobering reminder and a challenge for attendees at the annual National Coalition for Homeless Veterans conference Wednesday, calling the progress impressive but incomplete.

“Having close to 60,000 homeless veteran, as we currently do, is a national disgrace,” Donovan said. “We can’t let these forgotten heroes slip through the cracks.”

Five years ago, White House and Veterans Affairs officials announced the ambitious goal of ending veterans homelessness throughout the country by the end of 2015. Since then, the number of former military living on the streets has dropped by almost one-fifth.

But with the deadline looming, VA leaders and veterans advocates say it will take an even more ambitious push to reach the goal.

Donovan and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced at the conference plans to extend housing vouchers to about 9,000 more homeless veterans this year, raising the number of veterans receiving aid through the supportive assistance program to more than 57,000. In 2009, fewer than 1,500 veterans received those vouchers.

Shinseki also touted new health screening efforts started last fall, which have identified and directed aid to about 30,000 veterans without shelter or in danger of losing their homes. The department has also seen a recent boost in the use of its homelessness hot line -- (877) 424-3838 -- thanks in part to a new public awareness campaign.

“We have made a difference … we know we can do this,” Shinseki told the conference crowd. “In a couple of years, we’ll be able to look back and say we took every homeless veteran off the street.”

Researchers expect to get a better picture of the veterans homelessness problem in coming months, when they finalize the annual point-in-time count for 2013. Shinseki and Donovan said preliminary numbers show another decline in the number of struggling veterans, but still plenty of work ahead.

Donovan warned that the positive progress could be undermined by sharp budget cuts mandated under sequestration. Although VA programs are spared from those trims, Housing and Urban Development programs are not.

The HUD secretary said 12 outside groups have stopped distributing housing vouchers because of the loss of public funds to administer the program, a small but concerning trend. He warned that if Congress can’t find an alternative to sequestration, future cuts to homelessness programs might leave vulnerable veterans without help.

Organizers of the annual NCHV conference said attendance this year was a record levels, with almost double the numbers of community organizers and federal partners from last year. They credited that success with the emphasis the White House has put on the issue, and said the attention has also led to more money and resources for housing efforts.

Twitter: @LeoShane

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