Florida LGBT advocates tell The Florida Independent that despite efforts to fill the lack of social services for their communities, problems like bullying, underreported hate crimes, and homeless youth continue to rise.

The Zebra Coalition, a nonprofit based in Orlando that offers support and services to LGBT youth, is launching a support group on Wednesday evenings to help local youth deal with legal rights, family, employment, education, and other issues.

Anthony Armstrong, executive director of the group, tells The Independent that the most pressing issues for Zebra clients start with a lack of support at home, in school, or among friends. This translates into discomfort that gives them a bad start in life. Armstrong explains that Zebra works with young people from age 13 to 24, adding that they say there is no one listening with a non-judgmental attitude.

According to Armstrong, issues that most of us take for granted — jobs, where to go to school, safety — are of major concern for young people who seek support at Zebra, especially for transgender youth.

A new National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report (.pdf), “Hate Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and HIV-Affected Communities in the United States in 2010,” released last week, shows that hate violence against the LGBT and HIV-affected communities rose 13 percent in the U.S. last year; among those reporting, transgender people and people of color faced the most severe hate violence.

The Florida attorney general’s office also issues a yearly hate crime report that contains data reported by local law enforcement agencies throughout the state to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The reports show that in 2007 there were 28 hate crimes motivated by a person’s sexual orientation, 35 in 2008, and 33 in 2009. These crimes include aggravated assault, simple assault, intimidation, robbery, burglary, vandalism, and the destruction of property. The 2007 report includes one murder considered a hate crime due to the victim’s sexual orientation.

The 2009 report also shows that a little more than 22 percent of reported hate crimes were motivated by sexual orientation, which represents the highest percentage of the total number of hate crimes since 1991 when the state first started to collect this data. It also shows that Broward and Miami-Dade counties had the largest number of reported hate crimes against LGBT communities.

Brian Winfield, communications director for Equality Florida, tells The Independent that the attorney general reports indicate that the number of LGBT-motivated hate crimes increased from 2007 to 2008 by 25 percent. Winfield argues that was the same year that “anti-gay forces were pushing for a marriage amendment  to the constitution.”

“That’s a trend we’ve seen across the nation,” he says. “When political and faith leaders dehumanize LGBT people, hate crimes skyrocket.”

Winfield claims that law enforcement doesn’t want to “report something as a hate crime because they consider it a blemish on the community, and they don’t want the public to think of their community as a place where hate crimes happen. They begin to get the reputation for intolerance and hate groups, so I completely believe law enforcement resists reporting things as a hate crime unless they absolutely have to.”

Winfield says his organization has a database of 155,000 members in Florida that allows them to work with victims as well as law enforcement on specific hate crimes against LGBT communities.

Asked about hate crimes, Armstrong says that in schools there can be severe cases of bullying and name-calling but teachers and administrators don’t realize how those break a student down. This gap has inspired the Zebra Coalition to develop an education program to work with schools.

He adds that his organization does not have hard data on hate violence, and that might be because it’s not reported when violence doesn’t escalate into something like a severe beating. He says it is a problem that exists in a large city like Orlando, but that people don’t take it to the police.

Armstrong adds that ethnicity and culture play a role, too. He says that in the African-American community it is common for men to hide their sexual orientation, an attitude that has an impact on HIV infections.

The Zebra Coalition’s most important program right now is Zebra House, an eight-bed emergency shelter for homeless youth with nowhere else to go. It offers drug rehab, medical services, and support to deal with religious issues. Armstrong adds that in Orlando if a youth is under 18 years of age and does not have substance abuse or behavioral problem, there is no homeless shelter to go to.

A shelter is also a safe place for transgender youth. In other shelters, Armstrong explains, a transgendered youth must stay on the side of the shelter he or she is biologically associated with, not the side he or she identifies with, which can heighten safety risks.

He also highlights that Zebra Coalition has a 24-hour crisis hotline, only the second one of its type in the U.S.

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