Get to Know a Grantee: Project Oz
Every month, the RHY Clearinghouse highlights the work of RHY grantees through the Get to Know a Grantee questionnaire. Their responses illustrate the great variety of work being done among the FYSB grantee community, and allows organizations to share their insights on the work that they do. It is our hope that their work can inspire collaboration and the sharing of experiences and ideas. Contact us if you’d like your grantee organization to be featured.
For this edition of Get to Know a Grantee, we spoke with Lisa Thompson, Executive Director of Project Oz in Bloomington, IL. In addition to their Basic Center, Maternity Group Home, Transitional Living, and Street Outreach Program grants from FYSB, Project Oz has a special TLP grant to help them implement housing for survivors of human trafficking. In commemoration of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Awareness Month, we asked Thompson to discuss the overlap between RHY and trafficking-survivor services.
How long have you had a FYSB grant?
Project Oz first received our Basic Center Program grant in 1991. Since then, our services have evolved based on the needs of the youth in our area and we have been fortunate to receive FYSB awards for our Street Outreach, Transitional Living, and Maternity Group Home programs. These grants have allowed us to develop and implement programs and services that complement each other and allow us to provide wrap-around services to homeless and runaway youth.
In 2017, we received a special TLP grant to create nine subsidized apartments for homeless youth who have experienced or are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking. In addition to housing, we offer these young people wraparound services to teach them the necessary skills to transition to self-sufficiency. They attend life skills classes that teach them how to establish healthy boundaries in relationships, set up a bank account, and more. Our staff also help each youth identify goals and a plan to achieve them.
What other sources of funding are essential to your program?
To ensure long-term program sustainability, we always seek to diversify our funding sources. Our agency manages several state grants for services to RHY, which allow us to reach more youth and provide additional resources. Our programs also receive smaller grants from several sources within the community, including the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation and the United Way of McLean County. State Farm Insurance and Country Financial are headquartered in Bloomington and have often partnered with us to support our programs.
What’s the primary need of homeless youth in your community?
The primary need of homeless youth in our community is access to safe shelter. There are 200 adult shelter beds in the community, but none of them will shelter unaccompanied youth ages 12 to 18. In addition, the local shelters are often at capacity and youth over 18 are at higher risk of being victimized in adult shelters. Project Oz is the only agency offering emergency shelter and transitional housing for youth in McLean County. While we never turn away a youth in need of services, our TLP/MGH programs always have an extensive waitlist. In 2017, 225 youth applied for housing through our TLP and MGH programs, which could only accommodate approximately 11 percent of that. Youth need to feel secure that such basic needs will be taken care of in order to begin to address other issues, connect to needed resources, and build the skills they need to reach their goals.
What has been your most important collaboration with a local partner?
We have developed particularly strong relationships with our local school districts. As part of our separately funded in-school student success/prevention program, Project Oz has full-time counselors in the three largest area high schools, which strengthens our relationships with teachers, administration, and students within these schools and provides an additional pathway for referrals. Another one of our programs provides in-school substance abuse prevention education and mental health awareness/suicide prevention to students. As a result, staff and students are aware of our services and feel comfortable contacting us. Often, by connecting quickly with youth who are at risk of family separation, we can intervene to prevent a crisis or their involvement in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems.
What sets your organization apart from other similar organizations?
The youth we work with have often been failed by other adults and institutions in their lives and many have been subject to traumatic experiences like abuse or exploitation. As a result, we emphasize strong, trusting relationships with our youth. We meet youth where they are at and appreciate that each young person and their experiences are unique. Each youth is truly an active participant in creating their own service plan. Our counselors emphasize strengths and improvement, and empower youth to choose their own goals.
What do you wish more people in your community (or the country) understood about youth homelessness?
Proactive prevention and crisis intervention services are far cheaper and provide far better outcomes than serving youth once they become homeless. And the latter often results in both a tragic loss of potential for youth and their families and youth involvement in costly systems such as child welfare or juvenile justice.
What is the intersection between trafficking and youth homelessness, and how can organizations who serve both populations work together?
Due to lack of resources and social supports to meet basic needs, runaway and homeless youth are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. Recent research indicates that at least 1 in 5 RHY have been trafficked. The longer, and more often, children and youth are on the streets, the higher the risk that they will be victimized. Many of the primary risk factors for youth homelessness and trafficking overlap, including a history of prior abuse and traumatic experiences, mental health issues, and involvement with the child welfare system. Since these populations so often overlap, those who work with RHY should be alert for signs that a youth may be a victim of trafficking or exploitation, such as unusually anxious or fearful behavior, lack of control of their own income or documents, or evidence of physical abuse. They should also develop a protocol for responding to the unique needs of these youth.
If you or someone you know is experiencing or at risk for human trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline: call 1-888-373-7888, text 233733, or visit their website for live chat.