When the Illumination Foundation was attempting to overcome opposition to its efforts to open a homeless shelter in Fullerton, Catholic residents, the Tri-Parish Coalition and the Diocese of Orange came to the rescue. 

In coming months, if unemployment remains high and benefits dry up, the feared “second wave,” may not be so much the return of the coronavirus as an influx of new homeless. And if that happens, groups like the Illumination Foundation and the diocese may need to work together as never before. 

Luckily, they have a good track record and relationship as unofficial partners in the homeless crisis. 

In January, 2020, in a room packed with Tri-Parish members, the Fullerton City Council passed an initiative that brought the first year-round homeless facility to the city: a 150-bed shelter and recuperative care center on city land and operated by the foundation for homeless people recovering from injuries. 

Last year, a pilot Safe Parking Program, also managed by the foundation, was opened for people and families living out of cars. 

In both cases, Catholic voices were vital. 

Paul Leon, CEO of the Illumination Foundation said the involvement of Catholics, “really swayed the city council. We couldn’t have done it without the support of the residents and the diocese. There were quite a few obstacles to get past.” 

The Fullerton stories are just the latest that shed light on how the diocese and the foundation have been able to work together toward shared goals. 

Although not affiliated in a formal sense, the nonprofit foundation, dedicated to aiding and housing the poor and homeless, and the Diocese of Orange and its Homeless Ministry and Life, Justice and Peace, find their interests dovetailing. 

“It’s a collaboration–not structurally–but a collaboration of efforts in the same direction,” said Greg Walgenbach, director of Life, Justice and Peace for the diocese. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged poor and homeless communities and its aftermath, Leon hopes the Church and his foundation form deepening relationships. 

“Part of our work was laying the groundwork,” Walgenbach said. “Not only with hearts and minds, but connecting with councilmembers and educating folks. Building awareness that there are dignified solutions.” 

Leon already considers Bishop Kevin Vann one of his close advocates and important supporters. 

“Whenever we’ve invited him, he’s come,” Leon said of Bishop Vann, who has toured Illumination Foundation facilities, called Navigation Centers, on several occasions and prayed with and for members. 

The bishop has spoken highly of the nonprofit during his tenure with the diocese. 

“We are blessed as a community by their care for the marginalized and their efforts to offer a path out of a seemingly desperate situation,” the bishop told OC Catholic in 2018. 

Leon, was a public health nurse working toward an MBA at U.C. Irvine in 2007 when he got the inspiration to start working on what would become the Illumination Foundation.   

Leon’s idea has since grown into a $20 million organization, with 50 percent annual growth, offering shelter and services for tens of thousands of homeless individuals and families, with the ultimate goal of providing permanent housing with supportive services.  

The Illumination Foundation also offers mental health and substance abuse counseling, children’s services and medical and recuperative care. 

During the pandemic, the Illumination Foundation has worked with the state and county on a project called Room Key designed not only to get homeless off the street, but to identify COVID positive or presumptive homeless and get them quarantined, regularly tested and safe without hospitalization unless necessary. 

As bad as the pandemic has been, the projected aftermath, in which millions of unemployed residents may become unsettled, has groups like the Illumination Foundation and the diocese girding for an onslaught of need and closer ties. 

Leon said the effects of the pandemic on poor and homeless made it impossible for residents to turn their backs on the poor. 

“The poor really are taking it on the chin,” he said. “ They’re really taking the brunt of COVID-19.” 

On the positive side, however, Leon sees chances for increased awareness. 

“What it did do, it really brought the community together and gave them a cause,” he said of the pandemic. 

Leon hopes it will spur more Catholics to become involved once restrictions loosen. 

By logging on to the Illumination Foundation website, at ifhomeless.org, one can find the “get involved” tab on the homepage with ways people can help. 

For parishes and Catholic groups, Walgenbach said Life, Justice and Peace is ready to help organize advocacy training sessions or connect parishes with groups like the Illumination Foundation and the United Way and its End Homelessness program, unitedwayoc.org. Walgenbach can also be reached through Life Justice and Peace, rcbo.org/group/life-justice-and-peace/. 

As the pandemic loosens and it becomes safer, Walgenbach expects needs to become even more acute and says “I want to encourage people to support efforts in any way they can.” 

Looking at the future, he said, “We’re always willing to work at creative partnerships and collaborations.”