Incoming Project Oz Director Lisa Thompson acknowledges she has big shoes to fill as she replaces the man who founded the youth services program nearly a half century ago.
But Thompson, who has been with the agency since she was in college 23 years ago, said Project Oz is working address sexual exploitation of children who are caught in the cycle of chronic homelessness and to curb what’s become the fastest growing population of girls entering the juvenile justice system, those accused of domestic battery.
Project Oz recently received a five-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It aims to curb the cycle of chronic homelessness by giving young people a steady and secure place to live in a single-occupant apartment, away from a shelter.
“We are housing young people who are homeless and are at high risk for commercial sexual exploitation,” Thompson said. “Either they are currently being exploited or they are at high risk for being exploited.”
Thompson said the program started in May and reached capacity within five weeks. It's had to turn away more than 80 percent of applicants.
Project Oz is also sharing in a grant with two other youth services programs (Northeast DuPage County Family and Youth Services and Youth Outreach Services of Melrose Park) in providing additional safety planning for girls who are deemed a high risk and to provide diversion programs for first-time offenders.
“We want to prevent young people from entering expensive systems when we can provide community-based alternatives,” Thompson said.
Thompson said the grant for helps strengthen the intervention services Project Oz already offers, while providing a research component with Loyola University of Chicago. It's being paid for in part by U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Crittenton Foundation.
Thompson added Project Oz is also working on two ongoing initiatives: suicide prevention and youth employment.
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