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Q&A: New grants will help Project Oz provide housing and divert youth from justice system

Project Oz Program Director of Youth Services Cheris Larson sits in the WGLT studio.
Melissa Ellin
Project Oz Program Director of Youth Services Cheris Larson.

November is National Runaway Prevention Month, and Bloomington-based Project Oz is celebrating by expanding efforts to house area adolescents. The nonprofit recently received two grants, one of which it plans to use for this purpose. Both are from the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Program Director of Youth Services Cheris Larson tells WGLT how Project Oz hopes to use the grants.

Interview has been edited for clarity.

WGLT: What is Project Oz planning to do with the new grant money?

Cheris Larson: One will provide diversion services to youth under 18. We already have a strong relationship with court services, so we're partnering with them to enhance wraparound and community-based services for first-time status or other non-violent offenders. Because most youth will not have subsequent justice system contact, diversion is a more effective and age-appropriate response in court. Research finds that formal involvement in the justice system tends to undermine rather than enhance public safety and reduces young people's future success. Ideally, the program and the services that we're offering are going to divert those young people from the justice system.

The other grant is actually used to increase the capacity of our Transitional Living Program by 25%, as well as provide an increase in outreach services to quickly connect with and stabilize youth who are experiencing housing crisis or living in unsafe situations. We've actually been providing outreach and transitional housing for over 20 years. And while the need continues to rise, especially in a post-pandemic, high-inflation society, the availability of affordable housing hasn't. So last year, we connected with over 300 young people over the age of 18 who are experiencing a housing crisis. So this expansion will actually allow us to safely house 10% of those youth, while continuing to provide outreach services to all youth by connecting them to additional resources, such as basic health and hygiene items, stable food items, educational employment support, immediate access to safe shelter, ongoing case management, etc.

And there's not necessarily any new programming, anything that is going to emerge from this grant money? It's expansion.

Cheris Larson: The services for diversion is actually a new program that we will be investing in. We do already serve young people under the age of 18, who have run away from home or are having family conflict, but the diversion side of things is something that we're going to start in this new program. But we're partnering with court services, and that is something that they have done for years.

What does the need for all of these services look like in McLean County?

Cheris Larson: It's kind of like the hidden homeless because a lot of young people are couch surfing, they're staying up in doubled-up homes, they're kind of going from place to place. A lot of people don't see young people as considered homeless, but what we've found is, over the last several years, or since the pandemic, rates of homelessness and young people has just risen. From about 2017 to 2020, we saw on average of about 250 young people between the ages of 18 and 23, seeking out services. Over the past three years or since the pandemic, that number has actually increased to well over 300. So the need is certainly increasing in our community.

While all of this is happening, there is also the larger building expansion that Project Oz is working toward, specifically the Youth Education and Support Center that will be a result of that. How does this grant funding — if at all — play into that?

Cheris Larson: All of the young people that are going to be served in that expansion will have access to that space, so the more young people that we serve, the more young people that can be served in that space. And a lot of people wonder, 'OK, well, you're getting this extra grant money to serve more young people, why can't that be used to build?' And the idea is that a lot of grants don't have funding for capital expansion and capital projects. So we are excited and able to serve more young people, but we need the space to do that. We don't stop serving young people, regardless of the space that we have. But this new space will be able to serve more and more.

How can people access the services, and when?

Cheris Larson: If a young person needs support, but doesn't know exactly where they might fit in, or what they might be eligible for, we're going to walk them through that process and make sure that they receive the appropriate connections or referrals. You can find us through social media, on our Facebook or Instagram page, you can find us through our website, email, you could walk into our office, you can call 211 outside of business hours, and be connected to an on-call worker through PATH. We have staff and many of the local schools, staff who are doing street-based and agency-based outreach, as well as access points through any licensed Safe Place location throughout the community. We don't want transportation or access to be a barrier, so we'll meet you where you're at and go from there. We also take referrals from schools, guardians, other agencies. Basically, any way that a young person can access us, we're going to be able to connect with them, and the services that we are providing in this expansion are essentially available right now.

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Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.
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