Paul Leon, 67, a 2019 AARP Purpose Prize winner, talks about how he founded the Illumination Foundation to ease California’s homelessness crisis. Leon, former CEO & Founder of Illumination Foundation, has made it his mission to disrupt the cycle of homelessness.
Can you describe your career before spearheading Illumination Foundation? Before your time as a nurse?
I worked in one of the busiest emergency rooms in the nation at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center. I then transferred to a hospital in South Orange County to take on a management role as their Director of Critical Care. I was working towards the goal of becoming CEO. It was suggested that I continue my education in order to achieve that goal. This prompted me to enroll in an executive management program at the University of California, Irvine. In order to complete the program, I took a job with the County of Orange as a public health nurse.
Why did you start Illumination Foundation?
I grew up in Compton, California, and wanted to help my mother get into stable housing. I was afforded an opportunity to go to nursing school, but I wasn’t a good student and at that time there were not a lot of male nurses. In spite of those challenges, I learned that I enjoyed caregiving and saw a need. I wanted to give back to the community where I grew up.
I just wanted to illuminate the problem.
While I was working as a public health nurse and getting my advanced degree I visited a cold weather armory and was shocked by what I saw. I realized this was an opportunity to expose my fellow MBA classmates to a growing problem that wasn’t understood. Back then, when you talked about homeless individuals, people always assumed it was by their choice. The lack of awareness surrounding homelessness and the growing crisis led to the inception of Illumination Foundation. I just wanted to illuminate the problem.
Why do you believe homelessness and lack of quality healthcare continue to persist?
When you say “homelessness” there are so many facets. There are barriers to housing and barriers to healthcare access—a lot of clients have mental or medical illnesses. The high cost of medical care, a lack of affordable housing combined with untreated mental and medical issues for homeless individuals all contribute to the complexity of the issue.
Homelessness is the end condition, it’s not a disease or process; it’s a condition or state of being.
Which social services do you believe benefit those in need most? Do you offer direct cash payments to your clients?
We deal with the most vulnerable populations. They may not have a home, be dealing with substance abuse issues, or need mental health services, yet they can’t get help. We have a program called “Street2Home” where clients get some type of care first—whether that’s immediate housing or a medical respite (popular in California – and now a paid benefit through Medi-Cal). We have facilities where we provide housing navigation, with the end goal being to move clients into permanent housing. Once clients find housing, we connect them to additional social services.
Recently the state introduced California Advancing and Innovating Medi-Cal (CalAIM), a long-term commitment offering Californians a more equitable, coordinated, and person-centered approach to addressing healthcare and homelessness.
Can you share any data on your impact locally or nationally?
Illumination Foundation has been in existence for 15 years, and we have always collected data to inform our decisions. Illumination Foundation has a very sophisticated medical record and data collection system. We utilized a data scientist who scrubs data, synthesizes it, and uses artificial intelligence to complete prescriptive modeling. This helps us predict how well clients will do with our services.
For example, John Doe comes into the program—we get John’s health history and social history and we’ll say “he will benefit from these services such as housing navigation, case management, substance use counseling, and behavioral health.” We then concentrate on those services and get him an individualized plan of care. The data helps us identify what specific services to offer each individual. One of our biggest data points is connected to our medical respite program. For 1254 clients, these programs diminished frequent visits to emergency rooms and increased time in our program which allowed us to find them housing. Insurance companies paid $25.698 million for clients before they were in our program These costs were cut to $17.797 million over 12 months.
What would you like another individual or organization reading this story to do?
I would encourage others to keep growing and innovating. I transitioned out of Illumination Foundation at the end of June. I started National Health Care & Housing Advisors, a healthcare consulting firm, where I am working with about 5-6 different states to set up medical respites around the nation. I started Illumination Foundation at my kitchen table at 53 years old—a now $50 million dollar nonprofit that currently employs over 350+ employees. I’m now 67 years old and I have ideas for an additional nonprofit that will continue to help vulnerable populations
A lot of times people feel it’s too late (their career)…yet I knew nothing about nonprofits when I first started.
A lot of times people feel it’s too late (their career)…yet I knew nothing about nonprofits when I first started. I asked, “what is a 501(c)(3)”? You can do anything if you’re passionate about it. I also want to return to school to get a Master’s in Nursing, with a focus on mental health.
Retirement is not in my vocabulary.
What does “Aging with Attitude” mean to you personally?
I honestly believe that at this stage of my life, I could do anything a 20-year-old could do because of my experience and knowledge. Looking back to when I was 40, I had the physical attributes (I actually played college football), but knowledge and wisdom weren’t there.
As you age you make up for the difference and are able to do things quicker, ask the right questions, and your knowledge saves so much time and energy. Today, there are so many tools available that you can use to really keep yourself mentally and physically in shape.
NaBeela Washington, an emerging Black writer, holds a Master’s in Creative Writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University and Bachelor’s in Visual Advertising from The University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has been published in Eater, The Cincinnati Review, and others. Learn more at nabeelawashington.com.
Photo credit Illumination Foundation.