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"Crazy" zero homeless goal within reach for two Michigan counties

Flickr/creative commons

Updated: 8/12/15, 2:51 pm

I'll admit I thought it was a bit crazy, when I heard that some places in Michigan had pledged to end veteran and chronic homelessness by 2016.   

Zero: 2016 is a national campaign that urges communities to reduce veteran homelessness to virtually zero by the end of 2015, and reduce chronic homelessness to virtually zero by the end of 2016. 

Washtenaw, Oakland, and Genessee counties and the city of Detroit joined the campaign in January. 

Washtenaw and Oakland counties are getting close to the goal.

Andrea Plevek is Human Services Manager for Washtenaw County.  "It's an absolutely crazy goal," she agrees. "And we're excited that we're actually working to achieve a crazy goal." 

The campaigns aim for something called "functional" zero, as opposed to absolute zero. 

That's because people can fall into homelessness at any time, meaning, it's flat-out impossible to have no chronically homeless person or homeless veteran in a region at all times.

Washtenaw County will have to house 153 homeless veterans by the end of 2015, and 121 chronically homeless by the end of 2016.

The county is well on its way.  By July, the numbers had dropped to 74 homeless vets, and 50 chronically homeless people.  

Chronically homeless people are defined as having a disabling condition and experiencing a full year of homelessness, or, four or more episodes of homelessness in a three-year period.

Plevek says it looks like the campaign will come very close to meeting the goal for ending veteran homelessness by the end of this year, and the campaign could eliminate chronic homelessness in February, 2016 – ten months ahead of schedule.

"What's not crazy is reaching zero is possible because of systems change," says Plevek. "Aligning resources locally and statewide and nationally to respond to homelessness, so that anyone who falls into homelessness can get right back out. We want homelessness to be brief, rare and non-recurring."

Plevek says some homeless people need support services in addition to housing, but "many stabilize over time. As you might imagine, once you have stable housing, and begin to address other domains of your life, you become overall more stable."

She attributes much of Washtenaw County's success to all the stakeholders agreeing to work jointly towards the goal. Many relinquished their authority and territory. 

The county was also able to win competitive federal grants due to its rapid pace of getting people into housing.

Plevek says the campaign  still needs two things: More housing vouchers from the federal government that veterans can use to pay for housing, and more landlords willing to accept Section 8 subsidies.  

Meanwhile, if it's able to stay on course, Oakland County could end chronic homelessness a year ahead of schedule.

But it's having more trouble finding homes for veterans. The county could fall short by 41 still-homeless veterans by December, 2015.

As you can imagine, the problem of homelessness is far greater in Detroit. And the city's Zero: 2016 campaign is struggling.

Based on its pace so far, Detroit is likely to have more than 800 homeless veterans by the end of 2015.

The numbers of chronically homeless is on pace to decline to 200 by December, 2016.

Genesee County is having the most trouble. 

Of the 108 homeless veterans identified as likely needing housing before December, 2015, 85 will likely still remain homeless. 

Of the 134 chronically homeless people needing to be housed by next year, 98 will still be homeless.

Corrections:  An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the Zero:2016 campaigns to cities in Michigan, rather than three counties and one city (Detroit.)    Also, the definition of chronic homelessness was corrected to four episodes in three years, not three episodes in four years.  Washtenaw County's numbers were corrected to 153, not 149, homeless veterans requiring housing by December, 2015,  and 121, not 120, chronically homeless.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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