Many LGBT youth nationwide experience homelessness for a number of reasons, such as rejection and abuse. In Central Florida, an organization was founded in 2010 that helps this demographic. This organization, the Zebra Coalition, works tirelessly to aid what they call “LGBT+ youth,” the + sign signifying that they are also available to help “all youth.”

zebra_66The Zebra Coalition is the only organization in Central Florida that provides an entire list of services to LGBT+ youth, including a youth crisis hotline, groups and workshops, food and clothing, medical resources, mental health counseling, continuing education, and aftercare. A year and a half ago, the Zebra Coalition House, located at 911 N. Mills Avenue in Orlando, was opened and serves as a drop-in center where youth can be set up with short-term housing if they need it.

The Zebra Coalition has received many accolades since their launch, including but not limited to the MBA Orlando Pride in Business Award for Non-Profit of the Year in 2013, and making Orlando Life Magazine’s “Simply the Best” list for 2013.

I had the chance to talk to Zebra Coalition Director Dexter Foxworth about the organization and their upcoming town hall meeting on May 19, which deals with the correlation of higher substance use by LGBT youth.

How and when did you personally get involved in the Zebra Coalition?

zebra_1I was working for a Fortune 500 company prior to joining Zebra Coalition. Prior to joining the coalition I continually came across many stories and statistics on LGBT youth: gay youth are four times as likely to have attempted suicide; more than 50 percent of transgender youth have had at least one suicide attempt; 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT; LGBT youth are two times more likely than their peers to be assaulted at school. I felt so unaware, so ignorant to the scope of these issues and decided to do something about it and get involved to help those that need our help most: our LGBT+ youth.

As my journey began with Zebra Coalition in 2012, I quickly learned that statistics don’t adequately express what these youth face. The suffering, the psychological trauma of being rejected by family and friends, the pain from sexual and physical abuse, the hunger and chronic sleep deprivation from living on the streets are things these young people are dealing with daily. I realized that these LGBT+ kids were being completely failed by their families, the adults in their lives, and even the broader LGBT+ community.

What does your work with the Zebra Coalition mean to you?

What stands out the most to me is the number of youth that seek us out after being abandoned by their families. In fact, over 45% of the youth we serve have been rejected by their families based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and expression, which is higher than the national average.

We work with quite a few agencies, schools, faith-based groups and organizations to provide prevention education and cultural competency on LGBT+ youth. Our hope is that by providing this curriculum, our community will become a safer and more welcoming place for these young people.

How important do you feel it is that the youth of Orlando have the Zebra Coalition at their disposal?

In Central Florida, homeless shelters do not have the protocols or the staff in place to safely take in LGBT+ young people, nor do all social service agencies and providers have the cultural competency to assist with their unique needs.

Our network of 21 Central Florida social service providers, government agencies, schools, and colleges and universities have come together to provide everything from a youth center; education and career support; workshops and activities; case management and mental health counseling; medical resources; short-term housing and much more. The Zebra Coalition is the only organization in Central Florida that can provide a full continuum of care to LGBT+ youth.

I imagine a lot of people in Central Florida would want to help the Zebra Coalition. How may they do so?

Zebra Coalition’s success is due in large part to the many donors, volunteers and organizations that support us. We offer many ways for anyone and any organization to contribute their time, resources and dollars. Our website lists many ways for our community to get engaged.

Tell us about your town hall meeting on May 19. We know that LGBT youth are at a higher risk for substance use; just how much of a problem is it for them in Orange County compared to the nationwide average?

LGBTQ teens are 186% more likely to use drugs and alcohol then heterosexual teens. Zebra zebra_3Coalition is committed to helping place more LGBT+ young people on the path toward success and enable them to live healthier and safer lives. In fact, we recently were awarded a federal grant from the Office of National Drug Control Policy to prevent substance use among Central Florida’s LGBT+ youth.

On May 19, we will present a town hall at Rollins College focused on substance use among Orange County’s LGBT+ youth. Orange County Public Schools will present data on substance use rates of lesbian gay and bisexual youth. We will also discuss the disparate rates of substance use, depression, suicidal behavior and bullying due to negative environmental factors.

To learn more about the Zebra Coalition, visit Their youth hotline number is (877) 90-ZEBRA (909-3272) and their office phone number is (407) 228-1446, option 2.