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Paul Leon

CEO/president, Illumination Foundation

“Be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever worked. There will be days of difficulty, doubt and frustration — days when you want to quit and say, ‘I’ve had enough. How am I ever going to move the needle further?’ Stay the course.”

When I was 54, I started Illumination Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps homeless people in Southern California find stable housing and access health care. Over the past decade, we have provided 1 million safe shelter nights of stay, and 46,378 families and individuals have been helped through our services.

The problem I’m trying to solve

There are currently 62,000 people in Southern California who are homeless or in unstable living situations. Illumination Foundation was founded 11 years ago to break the cycle of homelessness that prevents people from overcoming their circumstances and leading successful lives.

We provide emergency housing to families right off the street and temporarily house homeless adults in recuperative care facilities after discharge from the hospital. We also oversee permanent housing beds spread out among 44 scattered-site apartments and 16 micro-communities, which are intended to foster close relationships between families. In addition, we partner with landlords to find permanent housing for clients with records of eviction, substance use, mental illness or incarceration, or credit issues.

The key to our success is providing continuity of care from street to home. As homeless individuals and families transition from place to place, maintaining continuity in any aspect of their lives is almost impossible, especially when it comes to health care, mental health and substance use services. So we embed medical and behavioral health professionals in all of our service settings. When our clients move from one setting to another — from recuperative care to a micro-community, for example — we provide wraparound services to meet their needs.

The moment that sparked my passion

I was working as a critical care nurse for an Orange County health care agency when I visited a homeless shelter to locate a patient. On my way out, the director asked me if could take a look at some of the elderly people and children who were there.

I looked around and saw 200 people on mats, including 50 children. One baby had just been released from the hospital and was hooked up to an apnea monitor to warn of breathing problems. It was pretty scary. I was appalled and I thought, as a clinician and a grandfather, that I had to do something. I asked to become a nurse for the homeless, and since that day, my work and purpose has been focused on “illuminating” homelessness and breaking the cycle that affects so many people, especially the youngest members of our society.

My advice to others who want to make a difference

Be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever worked. There will be days of difficulty, doubt and frustration — days when you want to quit and say, “I’ve had enough. How am I ever going to move the needle further?” Stay the course. I love the quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Why my approach is unique

Illumination Foundation approaches the issue of homelessness by providing services that address underlying medical, mental health and substance use issues. Working alongside local hospitals, we have pioneered a program that integrates elements from both the health care and homeless service delivery systems. This has involved educating health providers on effective approaches to work with the homeless, while they have helped us leverage resources from the health care service sector. By combining resources, we can have an impact on the most vulnerable homeless individuals — those with multiple chronic health conditions and mental health and substance abuse issues.