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Cover Story

Kicked out for coming out

Zebra Coalition gives homeless LGBTQ kids a helping hand

Photo: , License: N/A

Photo: , License: N/A

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.

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