February 13, 2023 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business
While homelessness has spiraled in Southern California over the last several years, one organization has left an indelible mark on thousands of lives.
The nonprofit Illumination Foundation has opened several shelters throughout the region and has served more than 4,000 unhoused people, including over 240 children and parents. The nonprofit has also housed more than 470 families.
The organization was founded by Merage School MBA alumni Paul Leon and Paul Cho. The pair of Pauls came up with the idea in the classroom of Professor Imran Currim.
Due to the deep connection with UC Irvine, the Merage School honored the Illumination Foundation during a recent campus event that celebrated the 15-year history of the organization’s fight to end homelessness in the Inland Empire and Orange and Los Angeles counties.
“The story of the Illumination Foundation in many ways is an example of the best that this business school can be,” Dean Ian O. Williamson said during the event. “It was one of the stories I learned when I first started two years ago. People were very proud to tell me about it. When I learned more about it, I came to see why people were so proud of it. And then most recently, I've had the privilege and honor to be able to join the board of the organization and I am very grateful for that.”
The Illumination Foundation has helped transform how Orange County combats homelessness over the last several years. The nonprofit currently operates four family emergency shelters and a navigation and recuperative care center in Fullerton that provides diversion assistance, crisis evaluation, trauma-informed case management, housing navigation, behavioral health and substance use therapy, and transportation services, among other services. The facility is state-of-the-art and a first of its kind in the country.
While there are still thousands of homeless individuals in the county, the foundation’s work has undoubtedly had an impact as the number of homeless people dropped by 17% between 2019 and 2022, according to county data. That impact will be even greater now that the organization is providing services in Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire.
The foundation has come a long way from its humble beginnings in a classroom beneath a student parking structure.
Cho spoke at the event about how he and Leon came up with the idea for the nonprofit. He said that Professor Currim’s class stressed the importance of identifying the unmet needs in a community, and then creating a business that fixes the issue. The co-founders were particularly ambitious, aiming to solve the local homeless crisis.
“The problem continues to get worse, but I think over the years the organization has developed some great innovative solutions, particularly in trying to integrate healthcare and housing,” Cho said. “I think we have leadership that is very focused on carrying that forward.”
Last year, the Illumination Foundation Board of Directors named Pooja Bhalla and Jack Toan as the new CO-CEOs as part of a longstanding succession plan. Toan has an MBA from the Merage School and has served as President of the UCI Alumni Association. Before joining the foundation as a Chief Operating Officer in 2021, he served as Vice President and Community Relations Manager for Wells Fargo. Dr. Bhalla had been serving as Executive Director of Healthcare Services for the foundation prior to her current appointment.
“This started 15 years ago and in that 15 years the organization has grown to do tremendous work and made a tremendous impact around housing and health care for those that are experiencing homelessness,” Toan said. “We're going to continue that mission and that vision that started so long ago.”
Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan also made an appearance at the event to provide the foundation with a certificate for its important work.
“I've known you well before I was even elected to office and it's been a pleasure seeing your vision and the work that you've done, not only in our city but throughout Orange County,” Khan said. “Mixing that idea of housing first with health care is so important, so we need to continue the work that you guys are doing.”
The Illumination Foundation will host its 10th annual Chef’s Table culinary gala on March 12, which will feature 40 of Southern California’s to chefs and restaurants. Guests will enjoy a multiple course, gourmet meal at the Disneyland Hotel. All funds will be used by the foundation to help end homelessness in the region.
For more information about the gala, visit www.ifhomeless.org/CT2023.