Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald said his department's goal of cutting the number of homeless veterans to zero by next January is less important than making sure that number doesn't rise again in years to come.
"The important thing is not just to get to zero, but to stay at zero," he said. "How do we build a system that is so capable, that as a homeless veteran moves from Chicago to Los Angeles in the winter, we have the ability to touch them immediately?"
On Wednesday, McDonald addressed about 600 community organizers at the annual National Coalition for Homeless Veterans conference, charging them to keep up the progress thus far as his department's self-imposed deadline approaches.
From 2010 to 2013, the number of homeless veterans nationwide dropped more than one-third to about 50,000 individuals, and VA officials expect that number to dip even further when the 2014 estimates are released later this summer.
Meanwhile, VA funding for homeless assistance and prevention programs has jumped from about $2.4 billion in fiscal 2008 to nearly $7 billion for fiscal 2016, providing resources that advocates say were nearly nonexistent a decade ago.
Despite the positive trends, the effort to end veterans homelessness will need dramatic strides in coming months to come close to the lofty goal of zero veterans on the streets at the end of 2015.
McDonald told the crowd that "we can get to zero, and we can stay at zero," but avoided specifics related to the year-end timeline.
Instead, his charge to the crowd was to make sure their work is sustainable, so that the "scourge of veterans homelessness" cannot return.
"We'll work hard, but once all veterans are off the streets, we know our job still isn't done," he said. "More homeless veterans will happen, and we're going to have to move them into housing."
The VA secretary also linked the homeless work to broader departmental reforms underway in the wake of the nationwide patient wait-time problems, highlighting the need for better customer service practices across all VA programs, including homeless outreach efforts.
He also emphasized the need to continue partnerships between his department and the community groups, saying that the lingering problems with veterans housing "are going to be solved at the grass-roots level, not in Washington, D.C."
This year's conference marks the 25th anniversary of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Group leaders said the most dramatic change over the years for the group has been the shift in public awareness of the issue, and the shift from managing the problem of homeless veterans to ending it.