By KENDRA SITTON | Downtown News
As she patrols outside of the Joan Kroc Center, Celeste Dumas pauses on 16th Street where a pointed object lies. She swiftly pulls out a set of plastic gloves from her belt and clears the sidewalk of what could be drug paraphernalia. Later in her office, she threw the item in a bin for bio-hazardous materials.
After 10 years working in security at Father Joe’s Villages, this small act is second nature.
“We look for hazards all the time. It’s really weird. I do it naturally everywhere I go — even though I’m not working,” Dumas explained. “I’ve been doing it for over a decade.”
As she has risen through the ranks at the nonprofit organization that provides services to much of San Diego’s homeless community, she has less time for patrolling the center and its surrounding streets. This also means less interactions with clients — something she misses. In her role as security manager, she has updated the security training program to make sure officers are responding instead of reacting to clients. Their approach now is to be compassionate and individualized.
“Throughout the last three years, we really did a whole 360 because we noticed they were more heavy-handed, more of that authority figure, which we already know we are. We don’t need to present in that way,” Dumas said.
In a class she pioneered on de-escalation, she teaches security to introduce themselves first and to ask someone how they’re doing and explain why they’re asking them to do something instead of just ordering them to do it. While on her patrol, Dumas greeted many people by name and some even mentioned it had been too long since they had seen her. More than 1,000 people are on-site at Father Joe’s Villages each day, whether because they live in permanent supportive housing or are seeking emergency shelter, food, or medical care, among other services.
“I look at anyone as a person first,” Dumas said. She explained she is intentional about being empathetic to people who may have trauma stemming from people in uniform. “We have to understand that that’s OK. How are we going to de-escalate [when] we already know that we’re a precipitating factor already because we wear a uniform, we’re looked at as the authority figure?
“We are security, yes, we have to have rules and we have to enforce the rules. But at the end of day, we need to see what’s the ‘why’ behind ‘why is this individual here,’” she said.
There are, of course, limits to what the security team can do and she has fostered a positive relationship with San Diego Police Department so they come whenever there is an issue her team is not equipped to handle. Recently, they were called in when Dumas spotted a man in view of a security camera waving a knife in an empty hallway. While he wasn’t waving the knife at anyone, Dumas said he didn’t look like he was having a good night and looked angry, so she decided to be proactive by bringing in SDPD.
Her team is currently understaffed, with gaps being filled with contracted security companies (although they are relegated to roles where they will not interact with clients). This is an issue that may not be resolved quickly as Dumas is careful in the hiring process to make sure new officers can handle the stress of the job while avoiding becoming callous. Despite this, or perhaps because she wants the team to remain healthy, she emphasizes self-care to her officers. This was particularly important when one of the dogs in their K-9 unit died and many needed time to grieve.
In the past year, the security team also had to adapt to a growing number of overdoses that happened in and around the facility. Officers each carry a dose of Narcan, which can treat an overdose in an emergency situation. Dumas counted 30 overdoses in 2019; many occurred in a bathroom Father Joe’s keeps open to the public.
Unlike many with dim views of the homeless, Dumas is careful not to stereotype people as drug abusers or mentally ill until she can learn their actual story. She said that often when she leaves psych evaluations, she is amazed by the people she serves.
“I’ve heard some stories man, and I’m just like, ‘You’re amazing… you are so brave. I can’t even imagine going through what you’re in. Look at you! You are still trying to fight,’” Dumas said. “Even just trying to get help is a huge step. I just admire [them].”
Dumas knows she could get a higher-paying job elsewhere, but there are advantages to working at Father Joe’s. She is filled with purpose each day and her supervisors have invested in helping her grow within the organization. Instead of hiring outside help, her supervisors have helped her budget and schedule for the department, helping her after each promotion. She sees that the staff are not just invested in clients and residents, but also each other.
Dumas’s dedication was recognized last year when she was given a CREED Award. Recipients are nominated by fellow staff members for going above and beyond in serving in the spirit of the Father Joe’s Villages CREED (Compassion, Respect, Empathy, Empowerment, Dignity). Many of the examples submitted for why she deserved the award related to the professional manor she conducts herself while working with different departments.
“Multiple staff members put up how I’m CREED-like in how I speak to people, how I de-escalate things — things I do so natural, I didn’t know people were watching,” she said.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.