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Federal Grant Will Help Project Oz Curb Sexual Exploitation

Lisa Thompson

A Bloomington-based nonprofit will be able to help more young people avoid or escape from sexual exploitation thanks to a new $194,000 federal grant.

The grant will help Project Oz pay for nine new beds for homeless youth who are at risk of exploitation or already being exploited, said Project Oz Vice President Lisa Thompson. Many homeless youth who are being exploited are engaging in some type of “survival sex,” she said. Picture an 18-year-old who’s staying with someone 40 years older than her, giving her food and a place to stay in exchange for a sexual relationship.

“What we’re finding is that when we give these young people an alternative form of housing, they choose that alternative and only later do they recognize the psychological toll that their original housing situation had on them,” said Thompson. “In the moment, the young person does not come us and say, ‘I’m being exploited. Do you have a place to stay?’ It doesn’t present itself like that.

“It’s much more complex, and it’s much more on the fringe of what they’re doing,” Thompson said.

The grant comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Administration for Children and Families. It was announced Friday by U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville.

“The efforts of Project Oz to combat youth homelessness, exploitation, and sex trafficking are crucial not just for McLean County, but for Illinois as a whole,” Davis said in a statement. “Project Oz is exactly the kind of local resource we need to prevent this criminal industry from growing and save at-risk children in our communities from becoming victims. Thank you to the team at Project Oz for helping make a difference in the lives of children in Central Illinois.”

Demand for Project Oz housing already outpaces supply. Thompson said 180 young people between ages 18-24 applied for housing last year, and 85 percent had to be turned away. (They were offered other non-housing services.)

“Sexual exploitation exists in every community across the nation but not every community is fortunate enough to have the resources needed to intervene and to offer viable alternatives to youth,” Peter Rankaitis, executive director of Project Oz, said in a statement Friday. “We are appreciative at the opportunity afforded to us through HHS to do so in McLean County.”

The transitional living program also focuses on prevention, Thompson said. Project Oz will screen younger arrivals at homeless shelters for certain risk factors, such as a childhood history of sexual abuse or poverty.

“The quicker we can intervene on the first episode of homelessness, the more ability we have to prevent exploitation and intervene in chronic homeless and long-term homelessness,” she said.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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