Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Friday, April 9, that he wants to end chronic homelessness among America’s veterans within five years.

When he took office in January 2009, Shinseki said an estimated 131,000 U.S. veterans were homeless. Now, 14 months later, the number of homeless veterans in America has declined to an estimated 107,000, the VA secretary said.

“It’s about jobs, education, mental health services and substance abuse treatment,” he said.

Shinseki spoke at Togus VA Medical Center, which he toured at the invitation of U.S. Congressman Michael Michaud, who is chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health. U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree also attended Shinseki’s visit.

Pingree called veterans’ homelessness “truly the shame of our nation.”

Attempting to explain the problem, Shinseki said every year 60 percent of high school graduates go on to higher education and about 40 percent go directly into the work force.

Less than 1 percent go into the military, he said. “They are trained and they go into a high-performing organization,” Shinseki said. “They’re immediately bonded. There is no apprenticeship period. After they spend from three to 20 years doing this, sometimes putting their lives on the line in battle, they become veterans.”

Shinseki said veterans have a disproportionate share of homelessness, joblessness, and mental health problems and a high suicide rate.

“What happened?” he asked. “The issue is not about them. It’s about us.”

Shinseki, who had a long, distinguished career in the Army before President Obama picked him to become VA secretary, said he was interested in how rural veterans are treated, which was one reason he came to Maine.

Nationwide, Shinseki said the VA is trying to go through a backlog of claims and get current on its handling of cases. VA staffers still process claims manually, but this year, he said, they will start handling them with automated equipment, which will speed things up considerably.

“It’s a system that hasn’t served veterans as well as we would have liked,” Shinseki said of the manual processing of claims.

He said 215,000 veterans and their families are enrolled in college using veterans’ benefits nationwide.

Maine, said Shinseki, is “a rural part of America that deserves special attention as we deploy our resources. … There is a particular challenge to rural areas. A veteran who chooses to live in a very rural area deserves the same level of care as one who lives in an urban area.”

He said the next step to caring for rural veterans will include the use of interactive television. “We can have medical consultation without the veteran having to drive all that distance,” Shinseki said. “We can monitor patients 24 hours a day in their homes.”

According to the VA, in 2008, it spent $602 million in Maine. There were 142,000 veterans living in the state. The money was reportedly spent on:

• Compensation and pensions — $344 million

• Readjustment benefits — $22 million

• Medical and construction programs — $217 million

• Insurance and indemnities — $7 million

A total of 27,037 veterans and their survivors in Maine received disability compensation or pension payments. There were 2,104 Maine veterans who used GI Bill education benefits and 541 home loans valued at $95 million that were backed by VA guarantees.

In addition, there were 8,026 VA life insurance policies valued at $86 million held by Maine residents. In the state, there were 411 participants in VA vocational rehabilitation. There were 2,509 headstones and markers provided for graves of Maine veterans and their survivors.

Michaud said, “Our entire Maine congressional delegation is very supportive of veterans’ issues.”

To Shinseki, he said, “You’ve already done a tremendous job on community-based veterans’ clinics and homeless veterans and women’s issues.”

To Brian Stiller, medical center director of the Togus VA Medical Center, Michaud said, “I’m very pleased with the leadership here at Togus. There’s a lot going on here in Maine, and it couldn’t happen without the strong leadership at Togus.”

Recent expansions of VA care in Maine include:

• A VA health-care access point has been established in Houlton. A VA doctor works one day a week at the Houlton Regional Hospital.

• Maine received a new mobile health clinic outfitted to bring primary care and mental health services closer to veterans in Franklin, Somerset and Piscataquis counties.

• A new community-based outpatient clinic is being established in Bangor, to be in operation next year. This facility will replace the current one, which is too small.

• A new community-based outpatient clinic is scheduled to be in operation late next year in Lewiston. In the meantime, a temporary VA facility is providing local veterans basic medical care closer to home.

• Two motor coaches, with space for confidential counseling, are attached to the Lewiston and Caribou VetCenters. They carry outreach workers to events and activities to reach veterans in rural areas.