The meeting in July was amazing enough: all four mayoral candidates in the August Democratic primary faced 500 homeless people and their advocates at Genesis of Ann Arbor, the interfaith partnership between St. Clare of Assisi Episcopal Church and Temple Beth Emeth.

The document the candidates signed there was even more amazing: “We pledge to commit financial and political capital to end homelessness in Ann Arbor by 2018.”

“The [turnout] was way beyond our wildest hope,” says moderator Julie Steiner, a former Washtenaw Housing Alliance director now working on national housing and homelessness issues with the Massachusetts-based Abt Associates. “We sent out invitations to thirty organizations like churches and synagogues. But I give credit to [the residents of] Camp Take Notice and the folks who support them. They really brought this to people’s attention.”

“Honestly, I wish it was a commitment to ‘alleviate’ homelessness by 2018,” candidate Sally Hart Petersen told the Observer later, calling that goal “more realistic.”

Indeed, this isn’t the first time local leaders have pledged to end homelessness. The county made the same commitment ten years ago after the Delonis Center homeless shelter was completed. With then county administrator Bob Guenzel as an advocate, enthusiasm was so high that an earlier director of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance predicted that by now the shelter would no longer be needed.

It didn’t work out that way. In 2012, the housing alliance counted 4,360 county residents as homeless or at imminent risk of homelessness during some point in the year, up more than 50 percent from 2004.

New WHA director Amanda Carlisle says that she thinks the number hasn’t actually gone up that much–it’s just that “we’ve been counting better.” Still, the most recent “point in time” survey, in January 2013, found 510 homeless individuals–344 in shelters and 166 outside of them.

Guenzel now chairs the WHA board. “Way back when, the city and county started a three-part initiative on homelessness,” he recalls. “First, Alpha House for families in 2001; second, the Delonis Center as an emergency shelter in 2003; and third, end homelessness by 2014. We’ve accomplished a lot, but obviously we have not ended homelessness.

“Part of the reason was the Great Recession, and part of it was lack of resources,” Guenzel continues. “During the recession we had other focuses like: how do we survive as a government? And 2008 was the first time in fifty-two years that taxable [property] values went down [in the county]–and state and federal funding went down, and private philanthropy went down.

“Thankfully, the Ann Arbor city government is very generous. They funded the shelter even during the recession.”

Steiner still wholeheartedly believes it’s possible to end homelessness.

“We need to do it in a systematic way,” she says. “When Obama came in, General Shinseki at the VA made the commitment to end homelessness for vets by 2015. They realized that if we were going to end homelessness, we actually had to have successes, so people believe it’s possible. Vets are a finite group, and the federal funders revised the funding stream, with ending veterans’ homelessness as a priority–and they’re getting close in Phoenix and Salt Lake City.

“Fifteen years ago the approach was to have people come to the shelter, get themselves together, and then find housing,” Steiner continues. “That doesn’t work. What you really need is [permanent] housing and to connect people with services.”

“Rapid rehousing is the way to go,” Guenzel agrees. “It’s the best way to help provide services. And we now have a $2.1 million endowment for supportive services. St. Joe’s gave $1 million.” Further adding to the city and county contributions for housing and services, “we’ve gotten $4 million from HUD and $1 million from the state.”

That’s a lot of money–but it’ll take a lot more to end homelessness. “We talk about 500 units of housing,” says Guenzel. “The national figure is $15,000 per unit for each year,” says Carlisle, “$5,000 for services and $10,000 for housing.” If the city had to provide it all, that would work out to $7.5 million annually–about 10 percent of the city’s general fund budget.

Councilmember Christopher Taylor understands the math. He signed the Genesis pledge, and as winner of the August primary is on track to be elected Ann Arbor’s next mayor.

“Homelessness prevents people from living meaningful fulfilling lives so government should work to end it,” he emails. “But the solution requires ongoing efforts to fight poverty, increase employment, and expand affordable housing, and we certainly can’t do it on our own. We should do our part, but homelessness is an issue that requires federal, state and regional solutions.”

One new federal program is already helping: the Rental Assistance Demonstration program allocates IRS tax credits to housing commissions to sell for financing low-income housing. Supplemented with local funding and a HUD grant, the program will pay for a $15.2 million rehab and expansion that will add fifty-one units to the Ann Arbor Housing Commission’s Platt Rd. and N. Maple public housing complexes.

It will be the first increase in the public housing stock since 1998–but it’s also only 10 percent of the way to the 500 new units Guenzel believes are needed. “At least we didn’t shrink, and other cities did,” says AAHC director Jennifer Hall. “If we didn’t have this program, some of our sites would have to be demolished, and we wouldn’t have the money for them to be replaced.”

Encouraging as the new units are, at this rate the 2018 target for ending homelessness is also likely to pass unmet. “I didn’t mince words on this,” emails councilmember Sabra Briere. “We can house a person. No government can guarantee that no other persons will need housing … And –even more important–we have lacked the dynamic leadership on this issue–in any sector–to press forward.”

Building on the momentum of the Genesis meeting, WHA’s Carlisle hopes to provide that. “We’re going to submit a blueprint [for ending homelessness in the county] update at the end of March [2015],” she says, “and we hope to get the new mayors [of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti] to reaffirm their commitment to the pledge.”