On a cold, dreary night last month in Washington, D.C., rain pelted the walkway of a local park in the city’s Brookland neighborhood, quickly turning the ground to mud.
Despite the stormy conditions, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough found himself walking through the slippery sludge, searching for anyone in the area who was unhoused.
McDonough joined a group from the local VA medical center on Jan. 25 for the district’s annual point-in-time count, a survey conducted throughout the country to gauge the nation’s homelessness picture. The PIT count is required for communities to receive federal homelessness assistance funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Donning reflective neon vests, volunteers collected demographic data on people experiencing homelessness throughout the city, offering them gift cards and support in finding open beds at shelters.
“It’s important to see what too many vets still struggle with, which is homelessness,” McDonough told Military Times during the event.
Earlier that day, the VA announced it surpassed its goal from last year to help more veterans around the country find permanent housing options. The number of veterans experiencing homelessness also dropped between the beginning of 2020 and 2022, Military Times previously reported.
Last year’s count in Washington found a total of 4,410 people experiencing homelessness, including at least 208 veterans, according to The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, a local nonprofit involved in the annual effort. Two years ago, the city’s mayor Muriel Bowser released a revamped plan to end long-term homelessness in the district by 2025, the same year in which the White House is aiming to reduce nationwide homelessness by 25%.
Data from this year’s PIT count in Washington is not expected to be released for a few months.
McDonough, meanwhile, is no stranger to assisting in VA outreach efforts, though he is not the first VA secretary to make an appearance for the yearly count. In 2018, then-Secretary David Shulkin also did the PIT count in D.C., and back in 2015 then-Secretary Bob McDonald walked the streets of Los Angeles’ Skid Row for the annual survey.
This year, before dispersing throughout the city, volunteers gathered at the D.C. VA Medical Center, where they were assigned to cover different zones, received instruction on how to use a mobile app to collect survey data and reminded of how to respectfully approach people.
One of the volunteers, Ilana Marmon, a coordinated entry specialist for the medical center’s homeless program, told Military Times she has done nearly 10 PIT counts.
“It’s meaningful to have the secretary here with us so he can see firsthand what we see all the time,” she said, adding that just some of the resources she and her team offer local veterans include transitional housing programs, subsidies and case management.
McDonough acknowledged there is criticism to the methodology of the PIT count. Some argue it underestimates the total population of those who are unsheltered, but the secretary said he believes it is still important to be out in the community for the VA to see what it is up against. Earlier this week, he travelled to Denver to participate in their own boots-on-the-ground PIT count, according to the local KDVR outlet.
“I continue to believe that the phrase homeless veteran ought not exist in the English language,” McDonough said, “so we’re going to work tirelessly until we are at zero homeless vets.”
Editor’s note: If you are or know of a veteran who is homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness, the Department of Veterans Affairs strongly encourages you to contact the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at (877) 424-3838 for assistance.
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media