"We can all agree that money spent in that effort has been money well spent," said GOP Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

The VA spent $9.5 billion in the 2011 and 2012 budget years and is proposing to spend another $11.9 billion in the next two years â¿¿ meaning the overall cost would be $21.5 billion by September 2014.

Congress also has consistently raised annual budgets for VA's main partner in the homeless effort, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD has sent $350 million for vouchers out to housing authorities across the U.S. who have used the assistance to help house 42,000 veterans since 2008.

Advocates for the homeless also cite programs that they say finally recognize the fact that not all homeless are the same. Chronic cases and those with severe problems need substantial and longer assistance, while others need temporary, emergency help.

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 â¿¿ 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."

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