Orange County is one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, but it also has one of the highest homeless family populations (and homeless population). Five years ago two recent MBA graduates, Paul Cho and Paul Leon, observed this need but also observed no one else was addressing this in any coordinated way and started the Illumination Foundation. No shelters existed. Most homeless families lived week to week in motels and sometimes in between paychecks, they moved to their cars until the next time they could pay a couple of weeks’ rent.
These motel families could not afford housing deposits, were not lease worthy and with minimum wages, they could not afford available housing. Children were often not enrolled in schools. As in most cities, family homelessness was cyclical and invisible – and for some of these Orange County families – they had lived in motels for a generation or more. Motel life was the only life many of these children (and adults) had known.
Last week I returned from Irvine, CA where I served as a grant reviewer and general observer of programs for homeless families of the Illumination Foundation (IF). It was an exchange of ideas, learning, and an opportunity to review new approaches. I took a tour with Paul Cho and their program director, Jena Kay, to several of their sites – residence and program – and they had the audacity and vision to not duplicate services, to make use of existing sites, to not invest in property and to invest instead in skilled staff (case managers) and make deals with the city and property owners to “rent” abandoned low income housing, take on master leases and transform a few motels and apartments into emergency shelter (short stays) and permanent housing. In one case, they are bringing a trailer on site to bring direct services to the residents of one such community. Connecting community-based medical, dental and behavioral health services with job training (they use computers and remote training) and housing, they are seeing a community impact using resources in a targeted and coordinated way to get homeless families quickly housed and provide needed services along the way.
Illumination Foundation has found a path that invests in services and since no shelter for families existed before – investing in that strategy when there is a crisis is not a good use of their limited funds. Reacting to the crisis of the overwhelming growth of homeless families in Orange County by bringing services where they are– was and is cost-effective – and just smart.
Orange County is not Nashville, however, and our homeless family population is not concentrated in motels or a few locations, but is a moving target. For our community, limited shelter makes sense, and Safe Haven has continued to invest in expanding our capacity in a sustainable manner without overreaching. For us, shelter is a part of a continuum of care, but often it is just the beginning of a family’s exit into self-efficacy.
We salute the light that Illumination Foundation is bringing to Orange County’s most vulnerable families and we hope our partnership and learning exchange will enlighten us both. I also returned to Safe Haven with confidence that our strategy, while slightly different, rests on evidence-based practice, wise investment, strategic planning and partnerships, and broad collaborative efforts with other agencies toward providing better, more cost-effective programs that work for Nashville.
Joyce Lavery is the executive director and CEO of Safe Haven Family Shelter.