NOEL KING, HOST:
Last month, Los Angeles County announced that the number of homeless veterans dropped by 18 percent. Those who are seeing this firsthand say that's good news. But LA still has the highest number of homeless veterans in the country - just under 4,000 people. Reporter Gloria Hillard has the story.
GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: There's a certain vigilance and purpose in Jesse Henderson's stride - understandable when you learn that the 39-year-old Army veteran did two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
JESSE HENDERSON: Our basic job was to look for the IEDs. Sometimes we'll find them. Like, we - that was our saying. Sometimes we'll find them, and sometimes they'll find us.
HILLARD: Today Henderson's mission has gone from searching out IEDs to searching for homeless veterans on the streets of Los Angeles. He's looking for clues - a tent that's off by itself, a military blanket from the VA.
HENDERSON: They'll usually have their stuff more in order.
HILLARD: As an outreach worker for U.S. Vets, his job is to try and connect homeless veterans with support resources, including transitional housing offered by the nonprofit. He wears a camouflage backpack filled with bottles of water, hygiene items, gift cards, a pack of cigarettes.
HENDERSON: Hello. My name is Jesse Henderson. I work for U.S. Vets. I heard that you might be a veteran.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No, I'm not a veteran.
HENDERSON: Oh, OK. Sorry to bother you, brother.
HILLARD: It's not easy. Some veterans don't want to be found. They've had a bad experience with the military or with re-entry after their service. Henderson says he's been there.
HENDERSON: There was a point where I was - didn't have anything, and then somebody helped me with my needs.
HILLARD: Navigating streets, alleys and underpasses three times a week, Henderson hears a lot of stories. And recently, more veterans speak of losing their housing.
HENDERSON: They've been living there four or five years. They get a new owner. The new owner comes in and says, everybody's gone. I'm turning it into an Airbnb.
HILLARD: The lack of affordable housing is at the forefront of the homeless crisis in LA County. But the city's annual Point-in-Time Count released on June 1 showed that the veteran homeless population had declined significantly. Heidi Marston is with the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center.
HEIDI MARSTON: This year's PIT count and the decrease really spoke to the hard work that was being done.
HILLARD: Although the previous year's veteran homeless count turned out to be not as high as initially reported, it did serve as a call to action for the VA. Again, Heidi Marston.
MARSTON: To kind of streamline our processes to get folks who are under the bridges and on the streets into housing.
HILLARD: The VA also increased funding for a program that provides 90-day emergency housing for veterans like Air Force combat veteran Christopher Underwood. He suffers from PTSD and was facing imminent homelessness on the street. He's now staying at a U.S. Vets facility in Inglewood.
CHRISTOPHER UNDERWOOD: And I'm thankful. So without this, it - I would probably be in a situation where - you know, a little more desolate.
HILLARD: Steve Peck, president of U.S. Vets, says the VA's outreach and services accomplished a great deal. But he cautions that veteran homelessness is an ever-changing dynamic.
STEVE PECK: There are more first-time homeless than ever before.
HILLARD: And he's seen an increasing number of post-9/11 veterans seeking help, veterans that may have been missed in the official homeless count.
PECK: They're hopping from bed to bed, you know, relative to relative. They're living in their cars. Some of them don't even consider themselves homeless because they're not sleeping literally on the sidewalk. But they are, and they're suffering.
HILLARD: Across town, on the West LA Veteran Affairs sprawling campus, it's early evening. Under flickering floodlights, 63-year-old Marine veteran Robert Louis and his wife Gail are getting ready to bed down for the night in their car.
ROBERT LOUIS: Really rough - as you can see, it's not a big car. There's (laughter) not a lot of room to sleep in.
HILLARD: The VA recently partnered with the nonprofit Safe Parking LA to provide 10 overnight parking spaces for homeless veterans. There's a wash station and a portable bathroom. They have to leave in the morning.
R. LOUIS: But we make the best of it.
HILLARD: The story of how they got here can be summed up to a few wrong decisions and Gail's diagnosis of cancer.
GAIL LOUIS: It's been extremely depressing. But I'm alive to experience it, so I'm forever grateful.
HILLARD: The parking spaces are beginning to fill up. There are new faces here every night. They look out for each other, they say. By 9:30, the homeless veterans have retired for the night, the sounds of the city muffled in the distance. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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