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BLOOMINGTON - "I'll Be Home for Christmas," the holiday standard, holds special meaning for a 19-year-old woman and her 1-year-old daughter.

They're in their first apartment, thanks to Bloomington-based Project Oz and co-workers at State Farm Insurance Cos.

Project Oz is helping the woman attain self-sufficiency through its homeless assistance program funded by the United Way of McLean County, federal money and private donations. The State Farm workers furnished the two-bedroom residence down to a Christmas tree.

As a result, the young mother, whom The Pantagraph agreed not to name for confidentiality reasons, is no longer counted among the many homeless teenagers living in McLean County.

Their first recent night in the apartment was a night of firsts. It was the first time mom and daughter had their own bedrooms. It was the first time the baby spent a night in a crib instead of a portable playpen that had been moved from place to place.

"My jaw just dropped," said the mother, after seeing her new home for the first time. "It got real bright for the holidays. - It was looking pretty gloomy."

Sadly, her story is an exception.

A lack of resources limits the ability of social workers to get kids off the streets or, in the case of this mother and daughter, out of quarters where they lived with several adults and kids all in one tiny place, said Lisa Nally-Thompson, vice president and director of homeless services at Project Oz.

In 2005, 150 kids between the ages of 16 and 21 qualified for help through Project Oz after they met the definition of homelessness - unaccompanied minors who lack a stable living arrangement, Nally-Thompson said.

Many were locked out or thrown out as a result of family squabbles, she said. Some fled home due to sexual or physical abuse. Sometimes, their families became homeless, and the older children were left to fend for themselves if there wasn't enough room for them when their parents moved in with friends or relatives, she said.

Whether abused or not, children become vulnerable to sexual exploitation for money for a place to stay for a night, Nally-Thompson said. They often quit school and their health suffers, she said. Some commit crimes, mostly to get things they need to survive, such as food, rather than to sell for cash.

A study by the University of Illinois Chicago released earlier this month estimated about 25,000 kids from ages 12-21 sought help to escape homelessness from agencies in Illinois, including Project Oz, in 2004, the last year for which statistics were available. The actual number of homeless young people in the state could top 100,000, the study said. Family conflicts were the most common reason cited for first becoming homeless. Others were running away and escaping abuse.

Numbers seeking help through Project Oz are rising, Nally-Thompson said. Whether because more are learning about the services through word-of-mouth or whether there simply are more of them, she doesn't know.

"It's probably a little of both," she said.

The agency helps with referrals with free services ranging from food pantries to places to get clothes and treatment for health problems. The kids receive counseling on financial skills like opening checking and saving accounts.

A fortunate few are like the mom, who was among 19 people from ages 17 to 21 to be accepted into the transitional housing program. The program includes rent subsidies, prepares kids for the workforce and how to maintain a job and financial skills. Some choose their own places to live within a scattered-site program. Four are housed in a single apartment building to allow for more routine oversight due to issues such as mental illness.

About 120 applied for the program, but the number who could be helped was limited due to a lack of money. The agency's budget would have allowed for only 16 to be included, but donations like the one from the State Farm workers allowed Project Oz to include three more.

A community advisory board screens the applicants. The process is a form of triage, Nally-Thompson said, where interviewers try to gauge the severity and urgency of situations. Though helping pregnant teens or new young parents was not the target, the 19 accepted in the program accounted for 24 babies, she said.

The key predictor for success is a strong desire to do what it takes to improve their situation, she said. Several graduates of the program now own homes and hold good jobs.

"Many of our graduates are working side by side (with) people who have no idea how hard they worked to get where they are," Nally-Thompson said.

As for the young mother, she plans to attend junior college for training for a career in childcare and find a job that coincides with the daytime hours her daughter is in a childcare center.

"I knew there were nice generous people in the world. But this is over the top. I never knew there were people who would do something this big for someone they never met," she said.

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