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WASHINGTON — Fewer than 60,000 veterans are now believed to be homeless, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Wednesday, a decline of more than 90,000 from public estimates four years ago.

But VA officials warn that getting the remaining veterans off the streets — and meeting their goal of ending veterans homelessness by 2015 — may prove even more difficult in the years to come.

On Wednesday, at the annual conference of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Shinseki said that department officials now estimate that fewer than 60,000 veterans find themselves living on the streets on any given night.

“We’re still not where we need to be,” Shinseki said at the annual conference of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “Our veterans are still counting on us to bring a sense of urgency to this fight.”

Shinseki’s estimate is 20 percent lower than the VA’s official homeless count in 2010. Meanwhile, the overall U.S. homeless population has decreased only slightly in recent years, from about 643,000 in 2009 to 636,000 in 2011, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

But advocates for the homeless credit the dramatic turnaround with veterans to renewed efforts to provide them housing and health care, following Shinseki’s public pledge in 2009 to end veterans homelessness in five years.

“It really has been remarkable,” said Matt Gornick, policy assistant director for the NCHV. “We’re seeing VA making more grants available, better leveraging grassroots efforts, learning from those established programs and getting more veterans off the street.”

In 2010, the VA established a new hotline for homeless veterans services (877-424-3838) to provide additional outreach. Officials also established programs focused on veterans leaving prison, to prevent them from ending up homeless.

And the VA has seen its budget for homeless programs triple in the last three years — to about $1 billion in fiscal 2012 — and its budget for homeless health care initiatives almost double during that span — to about $4 billion in fiscal 2012. Lawmakers in the House and Senate have tentatively backed additional increases next year.

Gornick said member organizations have also seen dramatic increase in preventative services for veterans at risk of losing their homes.

Fred Wacker, director of the Home Depot Foundation, called the effort thus far “an amazing success” in a short time frame.

Shinseki said by late summer the VA hopes to unveil a new registry of homeless and at-risk veterans, designed to track their struggles and better target employment and mental health resources for them.

He warned that many homeless veterans face serious, long-term problems, and will be among the hardest to reach and help.

“Tonight, at best, we still have over 50,000 veterans homeless in this country,” Shinseki said. “And that is unacceptable.”

shanel@stripes.osd.milTwitter: @LeoShane

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