Programs also have dropped the requirement that veterans must be sober or on their medications before receiving housing. Susan Angell, who oversees VA's homeless efforts, says having a safe and stable place to live improves veterans' ability to participate in treatment programs and other efforts intended to address the root causes of their problems such as substance abuse or mental illness.
Officials also now have what many believe is a more credible count of the homeless population — a census taken on the same night every January. Experts praise the government improvements in streamlining programs through thousands of local housing authorities, churches, businesses and other partners.
Gary Shaheen of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University is optimistic.
"If unemployment dropped by 2 percentage points, we'd all be crowing about that," he said. "Is there dramatic change? I think there is. Is it sufficient? No. I think that we're laying the groundwork."
Mental health issues may be the biggest challenge to the government's effort, according to veterans' organizations. The VA has struggled to keep up with mental health care demands for the overall veteran population due to insufficient staffing and other problems.
"If VA doesn't take a critical look at and correct the serious problems ... most notably, its mental health access issues and rising (disability) claims backlog, we will end up right back where we started," Miller said.
Veterans such as 50-year-old Lute, who served in peacetime after Vietnam and before the 1991 Gulf War, make up a disproportionate number of those in VA homeless programs, according to Congressional Research Service report from February.
Many had problems before going into the military. Lute was physically abused as a child and suffers from depression as well as service-related PTSD.
Another concern is what will happen if needs increase. Roughly 180,000 people leave the military every year; and that number will increase because the Pentagon plans to shrink by 100,000 troops over the next several years now that the war in Iraq is over and the drawdown in Afghanistan has started.
Though few Iraq and Afghanistan vets have showed up at homeless shelters so far, experts worry that homelessness among them may increase later.
"We saw a lot of problems for the guys and gals from the Vietnam war didn't (emerge) for decades," McElroy of Alpha Project said.
The VA hopes its new prevention programs will address that. One started last year has so far helped 32,000 families of veterans who were identified as vulnerable to becoming homeless. The program provides money for child care, rent or utilities to keep them in their homes when hard times hit.
Lute's family moved into the two-bedroom apartment last month after a successful year in their first apartment — a one-bedroom. Visits from social workers will decrease if he continues to take good care of his son Evan.
A 280-pound man with a tattooed neck, he regularly takes Evan to a park, near where he used to sleep at night. He says he's determined to give him the happy childhood he never had.
"I don't know the answers. I've been in homeless shelters, through VA programs, PTSD support groups, etc., but I think it's up to the person," said Lute, as his giggling son rolled on the living room carpet. "I will try everything I can to not become that way because of him. Now I'm not on the streets because there's more in my life to lose."
Jelinek reported from Washington.
Institute for Veterans and Military Families : http://vets.syr.edu
National Alliance to End Homelessness: http://www.naeh.org