Earlier this week I joined WUCF TV, the Central Florida Regional Commission on Homelessness and Orange County Public Schools for a special screening of the documentary The Homestretch , and to discuss homeless youth, a segment that is growing nationally and right here in our Central Florida community.
Approximately 1.68 million youth in the United States experience homelessness each year. The most common factors leading to this condition include immigration, foster care, child custody, family rejection and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBT+) rights.
In this inspirational documentary, three homeless teens brave Chicago winters, high school pressures, and life on the streets to build a bright future. Against all odds, they recover from a life of abandonment to create new, surprising definitions of home.
There are many misconceptions of homelessness, and what I love about this film is how it challenges the audience to rethink stereotypes.
Homeless youth are often misperceived as drug addicts sleeping under a bridge, and runaways are blamed for their situation. These assumptions are dangerous because they place responsibility on the youth to get themselves out of their predicament. But we must remember these are children.
Young people experiencing homelessness are really no different than any other youth. They are emerging into adulthood, trying to figure out who they are like everybody else in that stage of life.
I am inspired by the stories of each teenager in the film but it is Kasey’s story that connects with the many stories of youth we work with at Zebra Coalition.
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Kasey experienced episodes of homelessness with her family as a child. After she came out as a lesbian, her family forced her out on her own. Kasey spent over a year bouncing around between friends, family members, and sleeping on the street, ultimately dropping out of high school her senior year.
There is an overrepresentation of LGBT+ in the runaway population, due in part to family rejection because of their sexual/romantic orientation or gender identification. In fact, an LGBT+ youth is eight times more likely to become homeless than a straight youth and they make up a hugely disproportionate 40 percent of the homeless youth population.
At Zebra Coalition, over 40 percent of youth in our residential program state family rejection as being the reason they are homeless. These young people are being thrown out on the streets or fled their homes due to family abuse from the very people who are supposed to care for and love them.
Zebra Coalition is the only organization in Central Florida that can provide a full continuum of services to LGBT+ youth. We are the only organization dedicated to meeting the specialized needs of homeless LGBT+ youth in Central Florida and offer short-term housing facilities. We also offer a drop-in center where many youth have received food, clothing, showers, free medical and mental-health care, and access to activities and specialized groups.
Youth are given proper nurturing and support during their journey with us thanks to our Coalition network of 25 social service providers, government agencies, schools, and colleges and universities that provide a full continuum of services. Eventually, youth find their strength and we celebrate as they learn to accept themselves, go off to college, get a job or move out on their own. I am full of pride for the success of so many of our kids. Their resilience inspires me.
But there is still much work to be done and we need your help.
Here’s how you can help…
If LGBT+ youth are denied the love and protection of their parents, friends and community then they need to find a safe haven within the LGBT+ and allied community. There is no clearer way to demonstrate such love and protection than by making sure these kids are given a safe, healthy and supportive environment.
Dexter Foxworth, Zebra Coalition Director