The number of homeless veterans in the Tampa Bay area is dropping, and at a faster rate than the national average, according to statistics released Thursday.Nationwide, the number of homeless veterans has dropped by 5.4 percent compared to last year, said U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. HUDís "Annual Homeless Assessment Report" put the total number of veterans experiencing homelessness in January 2018 at 37,878. That compares to 40,020 a year earlier.The news is even better in the Tampa Bay area, where the number of homeless veterans dropped by 12 percent, from 905 to 800, between the count conducted in January 2018 and the previous year, according to statistics provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs region covering Florida.During a media call, Carson chalked up the improvements to continued emphasis on a program combining HUD and VA efforts to offer an array of services to help veterans deal with issues leading to homelessness.The Obama-era HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, continued under the Trump administration, combines voucher rental assistance for homeless veterans with case management and clinical services provided by the VA. The VA provides the services at its medical centers and community-based outreach clinics. Since 2010, the number of homeless veterans nationwide has dropped by nearly half.Last year, more than 4,000 veterans found permanent housing and support services through the program, HUD said. "We owe it to our veterans to make certain they have a place to call home," Carson said. "Weíve made great strides in our efforts to end veteran homelessness, but we still have a lot of work to do to ensure those who wore our nationís uniform have access to stable housing."Locally, Pinellas has seen a far greater decrease in the number of homeless veterans than Hillsborough or Pasco.In Pinellas, the number dropped 14.6 percent, from 329 last year to 281 this year. In Hillsborough, there was a drop of less than 1 percent, from 172 homeless veterans in 2017 to 171 in 2018. In Pasco, there was a drop of 2.7 percent, from 220 homeless veterans in 2017 to 214 homeless veterans in 2018.St. Vincent de Paul CARES works with homeless veterans in Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, and Hillsborough counties. Chief executive Michael Raposa said the secret is service providers and VA "continuum of care" networks working together.Sara Romeo, CEO and executive director of Tampa Crossroads, which works with homeless veterans in Hillsborough, said a shortage of affordable housing remains an impediment there."Right now the biggest issue is not funding," she said. "It is housing inventory. We are at 100 percent occupancy in Hillsborough County so finding a landlord to rent to the vet is the biggest problem."Raposa, of St. Vincent de Paul, disagreed."The lack of affordable housing is an unacceptable excuse," he said. "Of the 1,590 clients (1,064 households) served last fiscal year systemwide, there is not one of them remaining homeless because of a lack of affordable housing."Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.