Kicked out for coming out

Zebra Coalition gives homeless LGBTQ kids a helping hand

Life changed for Peter Ruiz in the summer of 2011. Just a couple of days shy of his high school graduation, Ruiz, who is now 20 years old, was kicked out of his home. He had decided that he wanted to major in theater in college, and his adoptive mother objected – she was concerned, he says, that theater would turn him gay.

After it happened, Ruiz stood locked outside of his family home, unable to get back in. "I felt really lost," he says. "I guess that's the best way to describe it – lost. [It was the] same feeling as when you're stranded in the middle of nowhere. You just don't know where to go or what to do next."

Ruiz reached out to a friend the first night he was on the street, but he says he could only stay there for a night.

Left with few choices, he reached out to his high school administrators at Maynard Evans High School in Orlando. They put him in contact with the Zebra Coalition, a network of Central Florida organizations that band together to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth in Orlando who find themselves estranged from their families, especially after coming out. After he got involved with the organization, he says he realized that "home" for some teenagers isn't always where you think it is.

"Family and home isn't a place, it's the people that support you," says Ruiz, who managed to graduate from high school despite being technically homeless. The coalition not only offered him the moral support he needed – it also helped him get food, shelter and clothing during his last days of high school and throughout the summer, as he made the transition into his freshman year at Rollins College. He is now a sophomore majoring in theater and minoring in physics and women's studies.

For many at-risk LGBTQ youth in Central Florida, Ruiz's story is an all-too-familiar tale. There are between 1.6 million and 2.8 million homeless teens in the United States, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of them (depending on whose stats you use) identify as LGBTQ. Not only are LGBTQ teens disproportionately represented in the homeless population, they're also more likely to be sexually assaulted, be affected by post-traumatic stress syndrome and fall into patterns of chemical abuse than their heterosexual peers, according to a 2008 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, an advocacy group for LGBT equality, a lot of kids are kicked out just for coming out – 26 percent of young people who identify as LGBTQ suddenly find themselves homeless after they tell their parents that they aren't straight.

Though the Zebra Coalition can't resolve a teen's family problems, the organization exists to make sure that at-risk LGBTQ kids in Orlando have enough support from the community to bridge the gap from adolescence to adulthood without becoming statistics.

Until recently, the Zebra Coalition existed as more of a network than a physical space – it operated a hotline for young people who identify as LGBTQ, offered counseling for those who needed it and hooked teens up with peer support in a safe setting. On Dec. 5, though, the coalition celebrated a milestone. The organization formally dedicated the Zebra Coalition House at 911 Mills Ave.

About 150 members of the community – including city Commissioner Patty Sheehan, coalition members, clients and volunteers – gathered for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Most of the labor, materials, furnishings and equipment that went into this house were in-kind donations from Central Florida businesses – furniture was donated by IKEA, the Microsoft Store donated Xboxes, local contractors and plumbers helped with construction services. A $500,000 grant from the Bryce L. West Foundation was used to help pay for the renovation of the little frame house, which was once occupied by eclectic establishments like Café D'Antaño and Seven Sisters Coffeehouse. (The first $100,000 was awarded this year – $50,000 of it went toward the down payment on the building this past spring, and the other half is being applied to maintenance and bills.)

The house is owned by the Zebra Foundation for Youth, and leased by the coalition. Located down the street from Orlando's longtime LGBTQ community center, the Center, the Zebra Coalition House brings the organization's services under one roof. Though it's not a shelter, it's a place where young people like Ruiz can go to find the help they need to stabilize their lives.

"While I never faced this challenge, the thought of being young and rejected by your own family for being gay was traumatic for me," says Jefferson Voss, senior director of the Tavistock Group and co-founder of the Zebra Foundation for Youth, the coalition's parent organization. Voss says that, although he had a supportive family, he grew up "in a time and a place where being gay was isolating and lonely."

"Growing up as a gay Southern Baptist in the 1970s and early '80s was fraught with invalidation at every turn," the Windermere businessman says.

The idea that some kids don't even have the support of their parents to help them navigate their lives always troubled him, so he dreamed of creating a place where homeless LGBTQ teens could feel safe and connect with services they needed to succeed. Though services have always existed to help homeless individuals, families and teens, there are few programs aimed specifically at gay teens, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; to make matters worse, some young LGBTQ teens find themselves feeling threatened, bullied or even abused by shelter staff and residents.

In 2007, Voss, who also serves on the board of directors for the Center for Drug Free Living, drummed up a plan to form a group dedicated to helping "youth of a different stripe." In 2008, the Zebra Foundation for Youth met for the first time. It gathered members of various Central Florida organizations who shared Voss' vision, and on Sept. 30, 2009, 50 members of those organizations formalized a plan to provide a wide spectrum of services specifically for at-risk LGBTQ youth – and with that, the Zebra Coalition was formed.

The coalition shares the Zebra Foundation's mission: "to foster hope, dignity and self-respect in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth and to provide them an opportunity to grow up in a safe, healthy and supportive environment." It picks up where parents abruptly left off, providing a safe haven for 13- to 24-year-olds in danger of getting lost in a social-services mess of numbers, dollar signs and red tape. The coalition is comprised of 19 Central Florida partner organizations, including government agencies, social services providers, schools, churches and universities. Together, they make sure young people who seek their help have access to all the services they need.

Partnership is at the heart of everything the coalition does, and it is that spirit of partnership that first attracted Zebra Coalition director Dexter Foxworth to the organization. "Zebra Coalition was attractive to me because of what it does to the community," says Foxworth, who has been with the coalition since February and whose position is staffed by the Center for Drug Free Living. "Because it brings every organization and agency together to focus on the cause."

The Center for Drug Free Living provides much of the structure that made the Zebra Coalition possible. The house does not provide shelter, for instance, but it can refer people to LGBTQ-friendly shelter provided by the Center for Drug Free Living. The Center for Drug Free Living also provides funding not just for Foxworth's position, but also for a clinical manager to work at the coalition, as well as behavioral assistance for young people in need. In addition to the Center for Drug Free Living, the GLBT Community Center, Human Services Associates, PFLAG Orlando, Rollins College, University of Central Florida, the City of Orlando Housing and Community Development, the Coalition for the Homeless and Equality Florida, among others, participate in the Zebra Coalition. They partner to provide kids with everything from shelter to counseling to education and career resources – even food and clothing.

Statistics cited by the coalition indicate that 80 percent of gay and bisexual youth "report severe problems with cognitive, social or emotional isolation," which is why the organization has made it a point to partner with such a wide variety of organizations offering so many specialized facets of care. While other organizations in Orlando exist to serve young LGBTQ people – Zebra Coalition member the Orlando Youth Alliance, for instance, has provided peer support, counseling and safe space for LGBTQ teens since 1990 – the Zebra Coalition is unique in that it provides such a broad range of services and partnerships, according to Foxworth.

Randy Stephens, executive director of coalition partner and neighbor organization the Center (located practically across the street from the Zebra Coalition House), is excited about the new addition to the Mills corridor. It can be difficult for an organization like the Center, which hosts numerous counseling and addiction-services programs for the LGBTQ community, to find the specialized resources to care for minors as well as adults.

"Any time you have youth between the ages of 13 and 18, you need to have background checks," Stephens says. "There's too much turnover among our volunteers. It gets too expensive."

Needless to say, Stephens says, the Center is "thrilled to have the Zebra Coalition House become our neighbors on Mills Avenue. We look forward to planning joint events for the youth along with providing support for the various programs."

That support, according to Stephens, will primarily focus on "working toward developing an LBGT-friendly group of foster parents for future placement in Orange County."

Until that foster-parent network exists, the Zebra Coalition House can guide young people to a safe haven. Even if the kids who come through the door do not specifically identify as LGBTQ, Foxworth says that any teen in need is welcome. "We don't turn anybody away," he says. "We work with any kid that comes to us."

More importantly, it will give young people of all orientations and backgrounds the support system they need. "I've always had a supportive family," says Anthony Armstrong, development coordinator for the Zebra Coalition. "We just want to give kids the opportunities we had." In many cases, those opportunities manifest themselves immediately. While some clients, like Ruiz, are connected to the coalition through school administrators, others have been dropped off at the coalition's doorstep. On more than one occasion, staffers say, young people have celebrated their birthdays at the coalition, surrounded by staff and case managers who are helping them cope with a difficult, and often traumatizing, time in their lives.

Almost immediately after arriving at the Zebra Coalition House, a case manager sits with a young person and helps him or her come up with a case plan that includes goals (such as graduating from high school, attending college or getting a job). Clients are set up with emergency or short-term housing, and coalition staff and volunteers help them learn the life skills necessary to become self-sufficient. The house currently serves 14 clients, and it has reached out to an average of 1,900 young people, with a combination of street outreach, speaking engagements and anti-bullying campaigns in schools and communities in Orange County.

Foxworth hopes it will have enough momentum to push out to other counties. He says the coalition is working on bringing in partners that specialize in dealing with domestic violence and human trafficking.

For the kids it reaches, the help they get from the Zebra Coalition can mean the world. Just ask Peter Ruiz.

The organization gave him the reassurance that help is just a phone call away. When asked what the coalition means for him, he doesn't miss a beat: "It means knowing that home isn't that far away."