LOS ANGELES — For 30 years after Vietnam, Art Harmon's address was a dry wash under the I-210 freeway, where he tried to forget his tour as a 19-year-old helicopter gunner.
But today Harmon has a one-bedroom apartment in nearby Sun Valley, thanks to what is being described as the largest campaign in history to stamp out homelessness among American military veterans, who have constituted as much as a quarter of the nation's homeless population.
Since 2010, the Obama administration has spent $4 billion hiring thousands of staff workers, expanding social services and medical programs and renting thousands of apartments, seeking to fulfill a pledge by the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, to end veterans' homelessness by the end of 2015.
So far, the effort has placed 51,000 veterans in housing. And advocates for the homeless praise the program, which provides the stability of housing before tackling underlying problems with drugs or mental health.
But an estimated 50,000 veterans remain homeless, and Shinseki, the driving force behind the initiative, is now gone, forced to resign amid the department's health care scandal. There are concerns that Congress, despite bipartisan support in the past, will not continue to finance the program at its current level.
“There has been an incredible outlay of resources, and, other than VA's own statistics, we really don't have specifics as to the program's effectiveness, outcomes and sustainability,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. He said the committee planned to hold a hearing this fall to examine the program.
Advocates for the homeless have jumped to the department's defense.
“Folks no one ever thought would get off the streets are getting help,” said Beth Sandor of the 100,000 Homes Campaign. “It changes the vision of what's possible.”
Phoenix and Salt Lake City announced last winter that they had effectively ended veterans' homelessness. Other cities say they are close. “We now have had the lowest count of homeless vets we have ever had,” said John Driscoll, president of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
Experts say the program has proved cost effective. A night in subsidized housing is cheaper than one in a shelter, hospital or jail, officials say, and a recent study by the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans found that homeless veterans' health care costs fell 34 percent once they were off the streets.