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- Photo by Deanna Ferrante
- Heather Wilkie
Even though the LGBT community only makes up between 10 and 12 percent of the U.S. population, LGBT youth account for 42 percent of all of the country's homeless teenagers and young adults.
In layman's terms, LGBT youth are much more likely to end up on the street than other people in their age group. But here in Orlando, unlike in a lot of other cities, a network of organizations is working to stop this epidemic. The Zebra Coalition is made up of nearly 30 Central Florida social service providers, government agencies, schools, colleges and universities that provide resources for local LGBT youth between 13 and 24 years old.
Heather Wilkie, the director of the coalition, says that the network's main mission is working to create safe spaces for these young people.
What is a safe space? "It's an ability to connect with your peers and to have a commonality in order to connect," Wilkie says. "Sometimes that's a physical space ... sometimes it's having the support of a group."
Essentially, these organizations are working to create an atmosphere where young people, many of whom face discrimination and rejection on a daily basis, feel comfortable enough to be themselves. This is funded by donations, partnerships, fundraisers events and government grants. Currently, the coalition has three government grants that help support staff and services like mental health and substance abuse counseling.
The coalition can house seven homeless young people in one family-style home and in one apartment at any given time. It recently unveiled a new rapid rehousing program that uses government money to quickly move homeless youth from the coalition's accommodations into their own new homes. The program helps them pay for rent and other needs until they can become self-sufficient. Last year, they housed 17 young adults, but with the addition of the rapid rehousing program, that number is sure to increase.
The coalition also has a drop-in center on North Mills Avenue, another safe space where students can come to receive mental health counseling, meet with case managers and celebrate milestones with friends. The drop-in center is also home to workshops and meet-ups, and Wilkie encourages anyone with a talent or professional skill to help. Anyone can volunteer to teach a workshop. In the past, community members have taught classes on résumé writing, interview skills, smoothie making and cooking.
Volunteers are always needed at fundraisers and events like Come Out With Pride. All it takes is filling out a form on the coalition's website, although all volunteers must go through a vetting process.
If you're not into the hands-on approach, Wilkie says that donations are readily accepted. The coalition even has an Amazon wish list on its website from which one can directly send whatever is needed with a few clicks of a mouse. Every little bit, from cleaning supplies to gift cards, goes to enriching the lives of these young people, a group rocked by devastating hate last year – the Pulse massacre where 49 people, many in this age group, were killed.
"It's very important for our community to have youth-supportive programs where we provide safe spaces for LGBT youth," Wilkie says. "It's never been more important, considering what happened on June 12, that we send these youth a message that they are supported." – DF