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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

For Young People At Risk, It's Hard To Stay Home Without A Home

Taylor gets into a van
Project Oz
Taylor Hartman, a youth and family interventionist with Project Oz, delivers supplies to the homeless youth in the group’s emergency shelter and mothers with infants in its transitional living program.";

The pandemic is making life even harder for young people with housing insecurity or family issues, as many faced increased risk from COVID-19 while cut off from their usual resources and supports. 

That’s according to Lisa Thompson, executive director of Project Oz, a nonprofit that serves young people in Bloomington-Normal. The pandemic has taken away options for young people who’ve been couch-surfing with friends or extended family without a regular place at night, she said.

“You have young people who may be coming in and out of the house, they may be your essential frontline grocery store workers, and they’re coming back to the residence at a higher risk of exposure and infection,” Thompson said. “And so that’s scary to a lot of families, and so some young people have disconnected from their families because of that.”

Indeed, youth and young adults experiencing homelessness are at high risk of infectious diseases, in part because they’re not able to self-isolate in their unstable situations.

The pandemic can add to that instability. For many youth, the shutdown has led to increased conflict with family members and escalating tensions at home, according to Project Oz.

In recent weeks, Project Oz helped a young mother who was couch-surfing at a friend’s house with her infant son. After an argument, she was abruptly forced by the friend’s family to leave the home and didn’t know where else to go. Project Oz provided her with safe emergency housing, and she now receives virtual case management to ensure that their basic needs are met and to make plans for the future.

Project Oz is currently housing 26 young people, along with their 11 infants/children. That’s more than usual, Thompson said.

This is all happening as schools remain closed—cutting off a critical referral source for organizations like Project Oz. Thompson noted that early on during the pandemic the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) saw a significant decline in calls to its abuse and neglect hotline.

“That’s not good news. They didn’t drop because abuse and neglect dropped. They dropped because this system that’s in place that reports people who need additional services or suspected abuse and neglect—that system is not in place right now,” Thompson said.

Thursday is National Thank A Youth Worker Day, when the country celebrates youth advocates who work for organizations such as Project Oz, The Baby Fold, and the Center for Youth and Family Solutions. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, Thompson said the fabric of Bloomington-Normal’s social safety net remains strong.

“That is not in every community. We went into this strong, and we’ve maintained our strength throughout this. And there’s a long road ahead,” she said. “And it’s collectively taken all of us in human services and those who volunteer to be creative, and innovative, and passionate. And we want to continue to encourage our community to be innovative and to be generous.”

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.
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