Katie and Kenny Callen and their son, Gage
Six UCI students started the Illumination Foundation to help families like Katie and Kenny Callen and their son, Gage, get back on their feet after financial setbacks. Daniel A. Anderson / UCI

Katie and Kenny Callen never imagined they would end up living in their car. But in July, the couple settled into a mobile home parking lot in Costa Mesa after losing their jobs and — unable to pay the $1,400 rent — their apartment.

Katie, 22, sought help by dialing 211, a social services information and referral line. She reached out to half a dozen homeless shelters and housing agencies, but only one returned her call: the Illumination Foundation, started in late 2007 by six students in UC Irvine’s Healthcare Executive M.B.A. Program. Within a week, Katie, Kenny, 21, and son Gage, 2, moved to the Costa Mesa Motor Inn.

Katie admits the situation wasn’t perfect. “My ideal living situation is not in a motel room,” she says, “but the three weeks we lived in our car were the hardest of my life.”

The Callens are just one of 112 families since July 2008 who have counted on the Illumination Foundation for housing and support services. The nonprofit places them in Costa Mesa and Anaheim motels and provides case management, medical care, mental health counseling, tutoring, and workshops on life skills, employment and money matters.

“There are many agencies that serve the homeless but so few beds that the regulations can be very strict, and families fall through the cracks,” says Paul Cho, the foundation’s finance & operations director and a graduate of UCI’s Healthcare Executive M.B.A. Program. “Here, there’s no need to build a shelter since we put families in motels, and we can use our funds to improve services.”

According to Orange County school districts, about 17,000 students come from families who don’t have stable housing, but the county has only 3,400 temporary shelter beds. Rising unemployment and home foreclosures have added families like the Callens to the ranks of the newly homeless. “There’s a tremendous lack of affordable housing in the county,” says Paul Leon, the foundation’s executive director. “Many of our families have jobs but simply cannot afford rents on minimum-wage salaries.”

Leon, who has 16 years’ experience as a public health nurse, first worked with the homeless in the early 1990s at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. His homeless patients at the time were mostly men with mental illnesses or severe alcoholism.

He was, therefore, surprised to later learn that women and children make up much of Orange County’s homeless population. Leon recalls arriving at the California National Guard armory in Santa Ana to treat the homeless: “I walked in and saw about 150 kids and their parents, and it was shocking. I thought, ‘Wow! These people look like my neighbors.'”

He soon discovered that this county’s homeless seek shelter in parked cars, garages and backyards. “Just because you don’t see homeless people out in the streets like in L.A. or Berkeley doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” Leon says.

Stabilizing these homeless families in motels, he realized, would make it easier to address their physical and mental health needs. So he formed the Illumination Foundation and recruited fellow students in UCI’s Healthcare Executive M.B.A. Program to serve as board members.

“We took it on as a school project because we knew we had to get the private sector involved. The county alone did not have sufficient funds to assist such families,” Leon says.

With the help of individual and corporate donations and a fundraiser that netted $50,000, the group began offering subsidized motel rooms and other aid to homeless families in the summer of 2008.

Today the Illumination Foundation has a $2 million operating budget and 14 employees. Motels in Santa Ana and San Clemente will join its network early next year.

The public-private partnership works with the Children & Families Commission of Orange County, Kaiser Permanente, the Sisters of St. Joseph Healthcare Foundation, the Pacific Life Foundation, the Orange County Community Foundation, and the county’s Health Care Agency and Social Services Agency, among others.

To date, it has arranged more than 2,000 free medical exams; 27 of its families have graduated to independent living; 36 percent of the adults have gotten jobs; and 33 percent are furthering their education.

The Callens were able to move out of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn after just a month when a county social worker under contract to the Illumination Foundation helped Kenny find a job at a Utah fast-food restaurant. The foundation provided bus tickets and paid moving expenses.

With a baby due in November, the Callens are extremely grateful. “I never thought people this nice existed,” Katie says. “They have given us a roof over our heads and treated us like family.”

Originally published in Zotzine Vol. 2, Iss. 2