Two years ago, the county’s social service agencies signed onto a national initiative called Zero 2016. Even supporter Andrea Plevek, then the county’s human resources manager, called the goal “absolutely crazy”: to have no homeless veterans by the end of 2015 and to eliminate chronic homelessness by the end of 2016. In Washtenaw, the groups figured, that would require finding permanent housing for 153 vets and 121 other chronically homeless folk.

They did that, and more. “From January 2015 through November 2016, we housed 287 veterans, and we still have another thirty on our list,” says Amanda Carlisle, director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance. Though those thirty are still counted as homeless under federal rules, they all have roofs over their heads: “Most are in transitional housing through the VA, the Salvation Army, and a few beds at Delonis Center paid for by the VA,” Carlisle says.

If we had only 153 homeless vets to start with, how could they house 287? “We learned that we had a higher number of folks coming into our system than we expected,” Carlisle says, mostly as patients at the local VA hospital.

“People ask to come here, and the VA helps them,” explains Ellen Schulmeister, head of the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County. “Up until a few years ago if you’re homeless when you go into the hospital, you’ll be homeless when you get let out. But the VA has started releasing [rental] vouchers, and if we can get someone a voucher we can usually find some housing for them. A lot of chronically homeless vets have been housed that way.”

Plevek, now the county’s head of community and economic development, says they never expected to have no homeless people here. The true goal was what she calls “functional” zero homelessness–“a system where homelessness became rare, brief, and nonrecurring. We have a system that now moves people out as quickly as they enter.”

For homeless people who aren’t veterans, though, it’s tough to get into the system in the first place. “We have fifty beds right now [at the Delonis Center], and we usually have forty people waiting to get in,” Schulmeister says.

Where are the people on the wait list living? “Some people stay in their cars,” she says. “Some people may have friends and family that they couch surf with. If people know that you’re eventually going to go into the shelter they’re more willing to cut you some slack.”

At least the waits are shorter now, because people are leaving the shelter faster. Some 265 people passed through last year, compared with 130 in 2014 and ninety-eight in 2012.

“Our length of time dropped,” explains Schulmeister. “We were doing [stays averaging] 120 days, and we dropped it down to eighty-two days.”

Two programs sped the turnover: “We housed them with state vouchers, and we also are utilizing a private fund [at the shelter] called House More Serve More. It helps to get rid of the past evictions or future housing’s first month’s rent or security deposit, so people don’t have to stay in the shelter to take care of debts or save the money to move.”

Where do they go when they leave the shelter? “In Miller Manor, half the units are for the chronically homeless,” says Carlisle. “But the need far exceeds the supply–and not just of housing but of supportive services.”

Support is crucial: ending chronic homelessness means getting some folks inside who say they’d rather be outside.

“There are people who don’t want to live in an apartment because there are too many rules,” says Schulmeister. “The reality is that they’re not thinking with a healthy brain in a healthy situation.”

The agencies responded with an approach called “housing first.” The idea, Schulmeister explains, is to “put people into housing and support them through all of their different issues until they all of a sudden realize they have something and they don’t want to lose it. It’s a slow process, and it takes a lot of work, but it does happen.”

“Some folks have difficulties working with systems,” says Carlisle. “People with severe mental illness have trouble living with others, but they do want housing. People don’t want to be Breathalyzed or take medicine, but we’ve moved away from a lot of [those] requirements. Avalon [Housing] has a system without preconditions, and usage drops over time if they’re housed.”

Schulmeister adds that substance abuse alone doesn’t cause homelessness. Fundamentally, “it’s about poverty,” she says. “People who are high users of drugs and alcohol who are rich don’t end up on the street.” The shelter mainly serves people from Washtenaw County. “Two-thirds of our homeless come from Ypsi and Ypsi Township,” says Carlisle. “The other third comes from Ann Arbor, Pittsfield, Dexter, Chelsea, and outside the area.”

That last group, Schulmeister acknowledges, includes some people from outside the county. It’s a sensitive subject, she says, but one she feels strongly about.

“People [come] to Ann Arbor for shelter because there aren’t enough shelters in the state,” she says. She says she’s told state officials, “I don’t want more money from you. I want you to put pressure on communities to at least have warming centers, or overnight warming centers, in their communities in the wintertime so people don’t make this huge exodus” to towns that do.

“Everybody wants the problems to end, Schulmeister says, “but without them having higher taxes or paying more money to charity or supporting people whom they consider to be bums and druggies–and they don’t want mentally ill people near them. I have no idea what will convince people to do this.”

After nineteen years on the job, Schulmeister will retire in June. Though she says she has “many reasons” for retiring, she admits “it’s getting harder and harder for me to do the politics. The politics are that bad.”

Asked if she means federal, state, or local politics, Schulmeister replies, “just say politics. Everybody understands what that means.”

The future of the effort to end homelessness, she says, is “a real crapshoot right now. So much depends on the money coming from the feds. The Affordable Care Act was a huge improvement, and they’re going to repeal it in the next hundred days … if we start losing [resources], that will set us back to where people come in the shelter and there’s no way to get out. And living at the shelter isn’t an option, so that makes it a revolving door.”

Asked what skills her successor at the shelter will need most, she replies: “First, this is a small business. It’s all about income and expense.

“Second, we are a personnel-driven organization. You really have to know how to keep staff happy. They’re people who are dedicated, and you want to support that.

“Third, you need a small ego. Lots of things are sad, and a lot of things are dumb–but you can’t take it personally.”