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Veterans' Advocates Highlight Progress On Homelessness, Claims Backlog

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

New Year's Day is the deadline for two ambitious goals set by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA said it would end the huge backlog of disability claims, and the Obama administration pledged that this would be the year that homelessness among veterans would end. Those objectives won't be met, but as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, that's not what veterans and their advocates are worried about.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Maybe neither goal was ever realistic. That might not be the point. Baylee Crone, who directs the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, says the point was to set an ambitious goal.

BAYLEE CRONE: Saying we are going to end veteran homeless by the end of 2015 - that changed the world as we know it.

LAWRENCE: Crone says before, people treated homeless veterans like something that would just always be around.

CRONE: For the first time, we had concentrated attention that was focused in on ending veteran homelessness, not just maintaining a homeless structure, but actually ending homelessness for veterans.

LAWRENCE: VA coordinated with local charities across the country to make lists of their homeless veterans by name. They matched them with housing paid for by a huge influx of government money, and it worked. Five years ago, about 75,000 vets were homeless. Now it's less than 48,000. Advocates aren't worried that it didn't reach zero. They're more concerned that with the deadline passed and the big campaign over, the government and charities will declare mission accomplished and move on.

BOB MCDONALD: Yeah, I don't view that all, Quil. In fact, tomorrow I have a meeting of our interagency council on homelessness.

LAWRENCE: That was VA secretary Bob McDonald speaking to NPR on his cell phone. He says the campaign has to continue and be sustainable because some veterans will continue to slip into homelessness.

MCDONALD: Two hundred and fifty-thousand service members are going to be leaving the service in the next year. You're always going to be able to go out on the street and probably find someone who has recently become homeless. So what's important is to have a system that can accept them.

LAWRENCE: McDonald says that's also true with the other goal VA set for this year - the claims backlog. Veterans need a rating from VA to get a monthly disability check. For vets with missing limbs or brain injuries, this can be their only income. In 2013, 611,000 veterans had filed claims that were waiting months, sometimes years, to get compensation. McDonald says that backlog is down 88 percent.

MCDONALD: It's the lowest number of backlogged claims in five years. We're down to about 71,000. We haven't gotten to zero, but we're not going to let up.

LAWRENCE: Officials have acknowledged that getting to zero on this goal may also never have been possible. Medical claims are complicated, and some will always take more time. And, again, that's not what bothers veterans. Jerry Manar, with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, says progress on the backlog was good.

JERRY MANAR: The problem is they got there by ignoring a lot of the other work that they do, and that's where we really have a problem. Their appeals have skyrocketed over the last few years. They now are approaching 400,000 appeals.

LAWRENCE: VFW and other groups have added staff to help veterans appeal decisions on their claims. VA Secretary Bob McDonald says the appeals are up because the agency is dealing with an unprecedented volume of claims. But he added that he needs more money from Congress to staff the backlog. Congress and VA have been sparring at hearings all year over allegations of waste and abuse. McDonald says a goal for next year would be to get Congress to hold a hearing on VA's progress. There's no hearing like that scheduled any time soon. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.