In a February 26, 2020 photo, homeless Army veteran Bobbie King makes his way to his volunteer position at the Nova Project in Detroit.

In a February 26, 2020 photo, homeless Army veteran Bobbie King makes his way to his volunteer position at the Nova Project in Detroit. (Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — A newly released federal report found the number of homeless veterans in the United States increased from 2019 to 2020, stoking concern among advocates that the effects of the coronavirus pandemic will add to an already regressive trend.

On a single night in January 2020, 37,252 veterans were experiencing homelessness — an increase of 167 veterans, or 0.4%, from January 2019, according to the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report released Thursday by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This marks the first increase in veteran homelessness since 2017. However, since 2009, veteran homelessness is down about 50%.

“Any increase in veteran homelessness is unacceptable,” the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans wrote in a statement issued Thursday. The group, a nonprofit that helps local providers of homelessness aid, criticized HUD’s lag in sharing the report, which was released six months later than is typical, and called the delay “significant and unexplained.”

Overall in the United States, 580,466 people were homeless, an increase of 12,751 people, or 2.2%, from 2019. Because the data was collected in January 2020, the report does not account for the economic effects of the pandemic.

“The findings of the 2020 … report are very troubling, even before you consider what [the coronavirus] has done to make the homelessness crisis worse,” HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge said.

Veteran homelessness increased in 19 states and Washington, D.C., between 2019 and 2020, with the biggest increases in California, Nevada and Delaware. California accounted for 31% percent of all homeless veterans in the country.

The number of unsheltered veterans increased by 6%, or 859 veterans, in that time. The states with the biggest populations of unsheltered veterans were California, Florida, Texas and Washington. Women, as well as transgender and gender-nonconforming veterans, were more likely than men to be unsheltered.

The report showed a disproportionate number of homeless veterans in 2020 were Black. Black veterans accounted for one-third of homeless veterans, despite comprising only 12% of the overall veteran population.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said Thursday that even the slight increase in veteran homelessness between 2019 and 2020 was “extremely concerning,” considering the data was collected before the pandemic disrupted everyday life.

“We don’t really have the best indication yet of just how severe the pandemic has been on overall homelessness, so that’s why we are really cranking up investments in this space,” McDonough said Thursday on CNN.

McDonough said the American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law earlier this month, included money to house homeless veterans and prevent homelessness. It provides more resources for about 37,000 veterans now receiving housing support through the VA, includes forgiveness for veterans with VA medical debts, and establishes a rapid retraining program for veterans who lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans said their group was optimistic, despite the report.

“We are… hopeful that having new national leadership in place that has prioritized ending homelessness and focusing on racial equity and building a system of care that works for all veterans will also have a positive effect,” the group said. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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