For homeless shelter director, personal experience drives work
In December, the sustainability of the winter shelter program in Forest Grove and Cornelius was in question, said Celeste Goulding, director of the shelters.
The service at the United Church of Christ in Forest Grove has provided food and shelter to people experiencing homelessness for several years. This is the second season it includes Emanuel Lutheran Church in Cornelius.
On Dec. 12, 2019, Goulding sent out an email — what she called a "desperate plea" — to supporters of the shelters and top local government officials, stating that if the shelters didn't get more volunteers, particularly those willing to do the overnight shift, the shelters might have to close.
Goulding worked 12- to 18-hour overnight swing shifts a few days per week, she explained to shelter partners. She admitted she was "struggling" to cover the shelter's basic needs, and that without volunteers, the shelter might not be able to stay open.
Those long shifts, without support, were preventing her from doing the important work of helping guests acquire permanent housing.
"I don't know how much more I can take," Goulding said in an interview at the time.
Ultimately, Goulding's plea was answered. More people stepped up to volunteer and work overnight shifts.
But Goulding's dedication and commitment to keeping the shelter afloat comes from personal experience with many of the issues unhoused people face, she said.
The people close to her work say her depth of knowledge about such issues is crucial to providing a beneficial service to an increasingly vulnerable population.
"People deserve a better chance," Goulding said. "Because I've seen it. I've been so close to addiction and poverty. When I look at the shelter floor, I see people that could easily be my uncles, that could easily be my friends' siblings, that could be the people I grew up with."
Goulding grew up in Deadwood, Oregon, an unincorporated town in Lane County about 30 miles from the coast with a population of a few hundred people.
She said the growing prevalence of meth in Oregon at that time hit her community hard.
"It hit my friends," Goulding said. "Most of my friends, by the time we were 13, 14, we had all at least dabbled in using meth, if not, were full-on addicted."
Goulding said her parents and many others in town were preoccupied by financial instability. That made it easy for kids like her to "disappear" from adult supervision and make bad decisions, she said.
By the time she was 13, Goulding said she was "pretty much a full-on runaway teen," spending most of her time with friends or on the street instead of living with her parents. She also started drinking, a coping mechanism with which she has had to reckon in more recent years.
Goulding's childhood taught her to look for community in times of need, she said.
"People do bond together when they need to," she said, noting that she's still in touch with many of her friends from Deadwood. "People come together in order to take care of each other."
Goulding brought an interest in how communities address poverty and addiction to Pacific University as an undergraduate. She said her upbringing fed that interest.
Pacific recruited her to come after she received high scores on standardized tests. They waived application fees, hosted her for visits and connected her with financial aid that largely paid for her education, which she couldn't have accessed otherwise, she said.
"It was a big deal," Goulding said. "I was the first person in my family to go straight to college out of high school. It was the first time I was around a concentration of peers that just had expendable income."
She took sociology and psychology courses, which helped her understand how the underlying causes of addiction played out in her hometown.
"I was lucky to get exposed to an education that helped me contextualize my childhood in a way that allowed me to do something with it," Goulding said.
While she was studying to be able to work on issues such as homelessness, Goulding herself struggled with housing insecurity throughout her time at Pacific, she said.
She petitioned to live off-campus, which was cheaper than living on campus, with a group of friends who also couldn't afford adequate housing.
At one point, Goulding and four other students rotated staying in her car, in hotel rooms and in another friend's studio apartment.
Her housing insecurity was compounded by losing thousands of dollars of need-based scholarships when she was in her junior year shortly after the recession of 2008 began, she said.
Despite her housing insecurity, Goulding graduated with honors and was voted outstanding social work student in 2010, she said.
She ended up getting an AmeriCorps position working with children who had been victims of sex trafficking in Yakima County, Washington. After that temporary position ended, she worked in a youth shelter in Seattle for four years before studying for her master's of social work at the University of Washington.
In 2015, Goulding returned to Forest Grove and started working as the volunteer coordinator at the winter shelter at the United Church of Christ.
Michael Terhorst, who had helped run the church's sheltering services for years, said Goulding brought a personal and professional understanding of stressors people experiencing homeless face that the shelter didn't previously have.
"I didn't really understand the people that we were serving in the much deeper way that she understood them," Terhorst said. "She brought this sensitivity and deep sense of them as people, and at the same time, a sensitivity to their lived experience. Quickly working with her, it wasn't 'the homeless,' but 'people experiencing homelessness,' a phrase that I now try to always use."
Goulding helped shelter volunteers more fully understand the ways in which guests' trauma influenced their psychology and behaviors, Terhorst said. That allowed shelter staff and other volunteers to be able to connect with guests on a more personal level, he said.
"She helped humanize the operation in an important way," Terhorst said.
He said Goulding also helped push the shelter to be as low-barrier as possible. The shelter no longer bars people who are intoxicated from staying overnight, as many shelters around the state do. Terhorst said Goulding knew that people could be empowered and trusted to not cause trouble at the shelter even if they were intoxicated.
This year, the shelter has also been piloting a policy that allows people to bring in their pets.
Terhorst said Goulding also brought a passion for personally connecting with the guests. He said it was immediately apparent that she knew she could best serve people by understanding their stories.
"She loves the one-on-one, she loves working with individuals, and she has a tremendous strength in that area," Terhorst said.
Before the 2017 shelter season began, Goulding had to leave her position at the shelter because of a tragedy in her family. Her dad fell off a roof and died five days later from his injuries.
"It was the worst moment and week of my life," Goulding said. "I had not been drinking for about five years up until that point, or not drinking as irresponsibly as I had drank earlier in my life."
Goulding was still staying in Central Oregon six months later. One evening, she went to a bar near the Central Oregon town of Terrebonne, where her parents had moved after her mom got a teaching job years earlier. She ran into a friend of her dad's while at the bar and started drinking excessively, she said. She blacked out and came to on Highway 97 with police lights flashing behind her. Goulding ended up completing a diversion program for driving under the influence of intoxicants.
Goulding said the aftermath of the experience drove home something about how trauma and addiction affect people. Sessions with a behavioral health counselor helped her understand how unaddressed grief from losing her dad exacerbated her alcoholism, she said.
Brian Schimmel, who was running the shelter at the time, decided to hire Goulding as director of the shelter when she came back to Forest Grove in 2018.
Schimmel said Goulding's work experience and understanding of the needs of the guests — what it's like to live without stable housing, what it's like to deal with addiction, what it's like to experience trauma and the aftermath of trauma — was unmatched in western Washington County, making her an ideal fit for the job.
"I think what Celeste and many like her have discovered is that human relationships are instrumental to lifting a person out of their circumstance," Schimmel said. "It all starts with communicating to the person, 'I care a great deal about you and I want to be helpful.'"
Schimmel said Goulding's passion for making that connection with people allows her to then apply her social work background to help the person access the resources they need.
"The few years I was involved, it was me trying to take it from a haphazard operation into something that was functional and she's just taken it to a whole new level," Schimmel said.
Schimmel currently runs Community Connection, a nonprofit that helps service providers in the area stay connected and sustainable. He said he and others working to bolster the financial sustainability of the shelter want to make sure Goulding's expertise isn't wasted on simply keeping the shelter open.
"If we're really concerned about someone's well-being, sure, you can provide a meal and a bed, but ultimately, you have to working toward getting that person to a point where they're contributing back to the community," Schimmel said.
In many cases, shelter guests want to give back, and they do what they can to keep the shelter operating.
"People want to be part of a community," Goulding said. "It's just that simple."
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