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Housing First in Action

Image of Sedgwick Gardens from the Washington Post.

A recent article in the Washington Post profiled Sedgwick Gardens, an apartment building in Washington DC’s affluent Cleveland Park neighborhood.

The article describes some of the changes that have occurred in Sedgwick Gardens since the DC Housing Authority increased the value of housing vouchers with the goal of giving recipients the opportunity to live in more affluent areas. The housing voucher program has been extremely successful in this regard – in the two years since implementing these changes, nearly half of the residents in Sedgwick Gardens use housing vouchers. Many of the new residents come directly from shelters or from episodes of chronic homelessness. And while this is a huge win for ending chronic homelessness and increasing opportunity for those who need it the most, it has not come within its challenges. The article notes increased police presence, the smell of pot in the hallways, and even an incident in which SWAT was called.

Though these circumstances have lead some people to denounce the efficacy of Housing First programs in reducing chronic homelessness, it’s important to note important caveats. First, the Housing First initiative in DC was successful in housing these individuals, not necessarily integrating them into the community. In as much as Housing First is a program to reduce the incidence of chronic homelessness, the pilot in Sedgwick Gardens has been very successful. Second, the most successful Housing First programs – including the ones here in Vermont – are the ones that offer services alongside their housing in order to facilitate the transition into stable housing.

What’s been lacking in Sedgwick Gardens, then, are supportive services for the formerly homeless residents. Chronic homelessness is associated with mental illness and other factors that cause someone to be “hard to house.” Giving someone a home is not an automatic panacea for the detrimental health outcomes associated with long-term homelessness.

Pathways Vermont, which administers the state’s Housing First program, provides its clients with “multidisciplinary community supports, including service coordination, drug & alcohol counseling, employment support, psychiatry, nursing care and representative payee services.” These supports are vital to the success of the program. In partnering with the Department of Corrections, Pathways Vermont has developed programming that has supported 150 individuals in re-entry over the last 9 years.

It seems as though officials in DC have taken notice of the problem: the article states that there are now social workers on site to help some of the residents out. The Sedgwick Gardens case is a great example of how housing and ending homelessness are challenges that need holistic, multifacted approaches in order to be effective.

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