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.
Leon, president and CEO of the Illumination Foundation, emphasizes that the two-story Stanton refuge — 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 — according to people who work with the homeless — the Theriault Emergency House, Leon says, 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 have a child in their custody or a pregnant mom at any point in her term.
It 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 house 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.”
The Irvine-based organization, which also aims to transition homeless clients into stable housing, began working with the city of Stanton years ago to address the community’s growing homeless population.
In 2012, the nonprofit started running an outreach center in the City Hall Annex, offering counseling and logistical help to get the homeless off the streets. But those associated with Illumination Foundation also envisioned building an emergency house 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.
Property was identified and purchased five years ago, but the structure came with a host of challenges. The 1950s home, which had three bedrooms and one bathroom, had been moved from Santa Ana to Stanton in the early 1970s.
The ranch-style house suffered raised-foundation problems, and rodents lived under the crawl space, 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.
Last year, more than $630,000 to fund the construction of the replacement home was raised at the organization’s annual OC Chef’s Table — which featured 32 participating chefs creating a five-course meal prepared tableside. The next event will take place March 12.
Since opening the house 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.
Along with the Illumination Foundation shelter, Orange County will also open a vacant warehouse off Kraemer Place in Anaheim Canyon later this year, Williams said. The facility will serve about 200 needy people a year.
The efforts are all tied to the success of the health and well-being of the region’s most vulnerable citizens, Williams said.
“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.”