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Project Oz Expands Services To Help Youth Displaced By Coronavirus

Lisa Thompson

The pandemic has led to increased housing insecurity among young people in McLean County, according to a Bloomington-based nonprofit that serves them.

Project Oz has expanded its services for those between ages 18 and 23 during COVID-19. Because of the pandemic, many young people have been asked to leave their homes because of fear of contracting the virus and spreading it to other members of their families. This is creating a surge of youth homelessness.

“You have a young person who is your front-line worker. They’re doing really valuable work to keep our food supply chain moving smoothly,” said Lisa Thompson, executive director of Project Oz. “But then what they are also doing is when they return back to their homes, their families are afraid that they have contracted COVID-19, and therefore they’re being asked to leave out of protection of other family members.”

Project Oz has increased the capacity of its transitional living program by nearly 50%, going from 23 beds to 34. Those are apartments for young people and their children, which also provide wrap-around care to help youth connect to community resources, learn the skills they need for a safe and healthy future, and heal from trauma.

The organization’s emergency shelter is running at about double its normal capacity. It’s available 24/7 for youth with no safe place to stay.

“What we are doing in our emergency shelter is we are trying to get as many kids re-housed as quickly as possible, because we anticipate as the rent moratoriums lift, we are going to see another surge of homelessness,” Thompson said.

Employment support, including stipends for completing work-readiness activities and subsidized job placements, are available for youth who have experienced job loss due to COVID-19.

“Our young people have, in some ways, never been more valued as front-line workers. They’ve been, all along, essential to keeping supplies in our community,” said Thompson. “However, the tradeoff to that is the exposure to COVID-19.”

Project Oz is working with multiple partners and has received funding from the federal Family and Youth Services Bureau, the Illinois Department of Human Services, and the John M. Scott Health Care Commission to help the expansion of services.

Project Oz also receives donations to help youth stay safe.

For more information on Project Oz and how to donate, visit the Project Oz website.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.