New Orange County shelter focuses on sick children and families

Succulent arrangements decorated the kitchen table, clean sheets were folded on bunk beds, paintings adorned the beige walls and Paul Leon, one of the guiding forces behind the project, couldn’t be prouder.

“We are just blown away,” Leon said as he gave a tour recently. “When people see this house, they say, ‘I wish I could live here.’ ”

The new facility is Illumination Foundation’s Theriault Emergency House, a place in Stanton where homeless families can find shelter and receive case management, workforce training, connections to legal and government assistance and medical health services while finding permanent housing.


According to Leon, president and CEO of the Illumination Foundation, the shelter — which has nine bedrooms, two laundry areas and double kitchens — is unique to Orange County.

Though the county has 66 shelters offering about 3,400 beds, the Theriault Emergency House, Leon said, focuses in large part on the homeless sick.

To qualify for emergency housing at Theriault, a family has to not only be homeless but also include a child or a pregnant woman.

The facility also does not have many of the restrictions of other shelters. For instance, Theriault does not require sobriety, employment or official identification.

The home also works with local hospitals in using a portion of the space as a children’s recovery center following medical procedures. Other organizations have referred ill clients to the facility.

Illumination Foundation “has a very unique role in our community in that they focus on recuperative care for our homeless population,” said Karen Williams, president and chief executive officer of 2-1-1 Orange County, a social services organization that provides assistance day or night to people who dial toll free 2-1-1. "[It’s] the group that really does focus on individuals who are hardest to serve.”

Envisioning an emergency shelter that would take families directly off the streets and into temporary shelter where they would work with case managers to help get their lives on track, Illumination identified and purchased a property five years ago. But the structure came with a host of challenges.

So the decision was made to demolish it and proceed with the vision of Yvette Ahlstrom, Illumination Foundation’s director of housing. She wanted to incorporate many bedrooms equipped with individual bathrooms so parents could have a sink to use for accidents, a drink of water or to clean up in.

Since opening the facility Nov. 22, Illumination Foundation has housed 11 families and is on pace to house 200 to 250 families this year, Leon said.

“When a family comes in, they can take a deep breath and stop running,” said Ahlstrom. “I had the joy of watching kids who have done homework on concrete walls sit around the kitchen table here while their parents make a meal. You see families exhale and say, ‘I can do this,’ and then the work starts. We love that moment.”

During the day, the home is closed so clients can go to medical appointments, find a job or volunteer before it reopens at 3 p.m.

At the site, case managers and families assess the best option for longer-term housing. Stays at Theriault Emergency House are limited to 28 days. In some cases, families move into bridge housing before connecting to permanent quarters.

“Our goal is to fill this house up and build five more, and put a big dent in homelessness in Orange County,” Leon said. “Our future generations depend on us.”

Luppi writes for Times Community News