In 10 years, the Illumination Foundation has gone from concept to one of the largest of its kind

By Douglas Morino     4/6/2018

Like many things, the Illumination Foundation began as a simple idea.  

Paul Leon, who was enrolled in 2007 in an executive MBA program at the University of California, Irvine, wanted to help those who call the streets of Orange County home. So he began working in his garage with the intent of turning his idea into a school project.  

Ten years later, Leon’s idea has grown into one of the largest homeless assistance organizations of its kind, operating on an $18 million annual budget and serving thousands of people across Southern California.  

“Our growth curve goes straight up,” Leon said on a recent morning in the lobby of the foundation’s multi-service center in Stanton. The two-story building across Katella Avenue from Stanton City Hall serves as the foundation’s headquarters and a resource center for the area’s homeless population.  

A trained nurse with experience in critical care and public health, Leon started the nonprofit foundation to develop medical care, rehabilitation programs and stable housing resources for homeless suffering from mental illness, substance abuse and other health issues. Today, Leon’s effort has grown into an organization with roots across Orange County and Los Angeles, serving nearly 30,000 people.  

“Our mission is to break the cycle of homelessness,” he said.  

A longtime advocate for issues surrounding poverty, homelessness and healthcare, Leon began developing the idea for an organization that could provide treatment and resources to at-risk populations while visiting emergency shelters in Fullerton and Santa Ana. He saw crowded rooms where hungry adults and children slept on the floors. Many suffered from medical issues. In one case, a newborn infant hooked up to a sleep apnea machine was having trouble breathing.  

“I thought to myself, ‘We can get these people out of here,’” he said.  

At first, Leon’s mission was to place homeless people into temporary housing, primarily in motels. But local motels often didn’t offer safe environments for families and children.  

‘We knew for people to be successful, they needed more stable housing,” Leon said. “Children need a place to be safe.” 

So the Illumination Foundation partnered with agencies that could offer help. The foundation has attracted the attention of public officials, homeless advocates and faith leaders who see the foundation’s work as an important, effective step in combating homelessness. Among the groups the foundation partners with are the Catholic Diocese of Orange and Catholic Charities of Orange County.  

“The Illumination Foundation is a critical resource in caring for not just food and housing insecurity, but the common drivers of these challenges – often substance abuse and/or mental health,” said Diocese of Orange Bishop Kevin Vann. “We are blessed as a community by their care for the marginalized and their efforts to offer a path out of a seemly desperate situation.”  

Among the foundation’s recent projects is converting a portion of Stanton’s Tina-Pacific neighborhood into a community garden, play area and children’s center with after-school enrichment classes for local students and their parents.  

“We wanted to be sure kids kept up in school, learned English and were able to eat healthy meals,” Leon said.  

The project has helped transform the long-troubled low-income neighborhood, said Stanton City Manager Jim Box. 

“We’ve seen dramatic improvement in the area,” said Box, who first met Leon at a grant writing conference. “Crime is down and civic participation is up – all with the help of the Illumination Foundation.” 

At the foundation’s Stanton multi-service center, people can book appointments for counseling services and housing placement services. They can grab a bite to eat while surfing the web from a bank of computers. On a recent morning, young mothers sat in the lobby with infants, waiting for appointments.  

“Some of the people we serve take six buses to get here,” Leon said.  

The building is leased from the city of Stanton for $1 a year. There was initial resistance from residents opposing providing homeless services in their neighborhood. But today those concerns have been largely offset by the tangible benefits – primarily, working to get people off the street, city officials said.  

Stanton Mayor David Shawver touted the city’s partnership with the Illumination Foundation and other groups as an effective way to combat a long-simmering problem.  

“Stanton has been a model for the county,” said Shawver, a member of St. Polycarp parish. “We have strict laws and proactive enforcement, but offer the best programs for relocation, education and health treatment. We found that you have to enforce the law, but you also have to provide services.” 

Those services are developed in collaboration with nonprofit groups and financed through grant funding, Shawver added. 

“The rewards we get are substantial for our tax payers,” he said.  

Along with mental health and substance abuse counseling, housing placement and children’s services, a large portion of the foundation’s work is providing medical and recuperative care to the homeless through partnerships with local hospitals. And about 30 percent of the foundation’s staff were previously living on the streets.  

There were 4,792 homeless individuals in Orange County in June 2017, according to the most recent count by 2-1-1 Orange County, a health and human services nonprofit organization.  

Leon said he faced difficulties when he first started the foundation in persuading public officials across the county to tackle homelessness. He doesn’t have that problem today.  

“It was hard to convince cities it was a problem,” he said. “Today, everyone knows homelessness is growing.”