De-stigmatizing homelessness, as told by Northern Virginia Family Services

De-stigmatizing homelessness, as told by Northern Virginia Family Services

“How’s your day going?” is one of the casual ways Navarra Cannon approaches her guests at SERVE, a family care shelter housed in Manassas, Va. Cannon, community and volunteer engagement specialist at Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS), runs various operations at the facility. NVFS’ programs help to reestablish stability for individuals and families in the Northern Virginia area. 

SERVE is Northern Virginia Family Service’s (NVFS) only location that hosts a shelter and a food pantry for Prince William County residents. 

Each client has 30 days to use their resources. Its rapid housing process ensures fair treatment and incentive toward active engagement in the facility. “The longer someone is homeless, the longer they are homeless,” Cannon said. “Without a timeline, clients might start to feel complacent. The 30-day process centers them and helps them put a goal in place.” 

Despite the long waitlist, the 92-bed space is never at full capacity, said Cannon. To provide a comfortable environment, each family and individual are housed accordingly. After drug testing, a background check, and proof of residency, families are provided a myriad of resources – career counseling, parenting classes, cooking and life skills workshops, food and kitchen access, renters education, financial planning, mental health counseling, legal and immigration access, library and computer lab, homework club, bike and transportation information, and in-house amenities. 

While volunteers assist guests at the shelter, the administrative office handles efforts toward educating homeowners and food distributors too. They utilize marketing tactics and “donation call-outs” to inform others about affordable housing, food waste, nutrition, and cost of living in Prince William County. 

Providing a comfortable environment for clients requires treating them as capable beings. Often, people who are home insecure, food insecure, or fully homeless are about the situation, not particularly the identity, for Cannon. “When I approach guests, I always ask ‘Hey, how are you?’, ‘What are you up to today?’, ultimately considering questions with their intended goals in mind,” said Cannon. 

Homeless individuals or those in need of basic means are often viewed as less than human. In a 2008 report from the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services states “discrimination and prejudice result from social or public stigma,” enabling those who are prone to homelessness to fall victim to unwanted stereotypes. 

In a 2012 report, namely “Social Stigma and Homelessness”, elaborates that eradicating homelessness would require organized advocacy and optimal research. The article states, “it is important to recognize that as human beings they have legitimate needs and rights.”  

Cannon connects with her guests by acknowledging their situations rather than blame them. “80 percent of guests here work. Some clients barely finished high school. Others have advanced degrees. Every situation is different,” Cannon explained.

“People want to help, but they don’t know how to help,” Cannon explained. A part of helping is by activating proactive rhetoric de-stigmatizing how homelessness is idealized. 

One client, who will not be named for confidentiality purposes, explained how she came to NVFS. “I was in an abusive relationship, and after a long time, I decided to leave and never turn back. So that’s how I’m here,” she said. “There’s a lot of resources here. I took a career class the other day where they helped me out with my resume. Now this is my third Friday [as a volunteer].” Cannon later clarified that this client was almost at the end of her 30-day process, and her time at NVFS was a memorable one.