LGBTQ leaders express concern for Casa Ruby clients after funds used for a low-barrier shelter were diverted to national organizations that they say are not safe spaces for the transgender community.
Khloe Pitts discovered Casa Ruby in the eighth grade after her family kicked her out of the house for coming out as a transgender woman. She was homeless, sleeping outside in Dupont Circle when she met Ruby Corado, the founder of LGBTQ nonprofit Casa Ruby.
Corado promised to give Pitts a warm place to sleep as long as she stayed in school. Pitts said she kept that promise, and when Corado opened the low-barrier housing and services shelter on Georgia Avenue in 2012, she brought Pitts with her.
“From that moment, I felt like I can save the world too,” Pitts said.
Pitts went on to volunteer then work at Casa Ruby as an outreach specialist. But now she said she feels “back to where she started” after Casa Ruby closed it’s shelter and cut many staff positions due to a steep cut in city funds.
On Sept. 25, the D.C. Department of Human Services informed the non-profit that an $850,000 grant that funded the low-barrier shelter would not be renewed with only five days’ notice before the new fiscal year.
Corado started a GoFundMe with the intention of keeping the shelter open another month. To date, it has raised almost $130,000. Interim executive director Alexis Blackmon said this money and additional funds she is applying for will eventually be used for a new shelter and for maintaining their additional services.
But a month after the shelter effectively had to close its doors, Pitts said former Casa Ruby clients are facing dangerous situations or returning to the streets because of abuse they’ve endured at other non-LGBTQ led organizations.
On top of the low-barrier shelter closure, Casa Ruby laid off about 30 employees, many of which Blackmon said were former clients and could struggle to find another job.
Listen to Khloe Pitts, former Casa Ruby client and current staff member, discuss the impact of Casa Ruby’s shelter closure on her and other staff.
Pitts retained her position but is only working one day a week and makes about $300 a week. She said even with help from other organizations, she is scared she will not be able to pay her rent, car payments or other necessities after struggling to find additional income.
Listen to Khloe Pitts talk about the impact of Casa Ruby’s closure on her role as outreach specialist.
Blackmon said Casa Ruby was a safe space for those in the LGBTQ community experiencing homelessness. She said many people leave their homes and seek places like Casa Ruby because of domestic violence from a partner or family. Growing up, she said she experienced abuse from her family after she came out as transgender, and since there were no organizations like Casa Ruby, she had to live in hotels.
“They think we’re making a choice for being trans, and that’s just not the truth,” Blackmon said. “It’s just us living in our true identity, making ourselves feel comfortable, making our outside match our inside.”
Casa Ruby, as an organization, still provides a variety of services, ranging from support for crime victims, immigration services and transitional housing.
But the low-barrier shelter’s closing meant the loss of up to 50 beds, laundry services, meals and showers, Blackmon said. While she couldn’t say how many people were served through the shelter, Blackmon said Casa Ruby provided over 40,000 services, either a bed, meal or shower through the shelter last year.
“A lot of our clients always knew that Casa Ruby was their home,” Blackmon said. “When you’re experiencing homelessness going from place to place having one place that you can securely put your items to know that they will still be there is a feeling of security as well.”
In previous reporting about Casa Ruby’s closure, DHS had not provided a concrete reason for its decision not to renew the funding for Casa Ruby.
But Interim Public Affairs Specialist Curtis Smith at the DHS reiterated the decision in an email statement to The Wash.
“DHS is committed to the safety and well-being of youth, including LGBTQ+ youth, who we know disproportionately experience homelessness,” Smith said.
“Grant renewal decisions are based on ensuring accountability and continuity of quality services and the safety of our residents. We value the community organizations who deliver these services and honor the contributions of Casa Ruby,” he said.
Smith said DHS is not decreasing overall funding for LGBTQ youth services and is instead offering those through True Colors United, a national LGBTQ organization, and Covenant House, an organization focused on youth-homelessness. These new services are both located in the Deanwood neighborhood in Ward 7.
Covenant House used the grant to open SHINE, a safe space and shelter for LGBTQ youth, according to a press release sent by the organization. SHINE offers 24 beds, laundry, dining and case management services. The release said the “trauma-informed” services were established for positive development and are culturally specific to LGBTQ youth.
“We are very excited to launch a program that serves LGBTQ+ young people who experience homelessness at a rate 120% higher than that of their peers,” said Angela Jones Hackley, Covenant House Greater Washington CEO.
“We have done a great deal of work with the community to make this happen, and SHINE is a program that our amazing LGBTQ+ young people will benefit from, and most importantly, something that will create lasting impact in their lives.”
But Casa Ruby representatives still expressed hesitation over the effectiveness of those organizations.
Pitts said she has personally faced harassment and abuse in other non-LGBTQ specific shelters and would not be comfortable going anywhere outside of Casa Ruby. She said she wouldn’t recommend any other client go to those shelters either, but has heard of people going back to shelters in Southeast and Downtown D.C.
Listen to Khloe Pitts talk about the impact of Casa Ruby’s closure on former clients.
Blackmon said she had concerns that Casa Ruby clients may be at risk of staying at shelters that are not a LGBTQ-centered organization and are less understanding of the needs of LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness. She said in these environments, clients are at risk of facing additional trauma.
“The cultural competency behind that, I’m just not 100% sure that it’s where it should be,” Blackmon said. “It’ll also mean the client can be mistreated, misgendered, abused, raped. There’s a lot of things that can happen.”
Lourdes Ashley Hunter, executive director of the Trans Women of Color Collective, said Casa Ruby is a unique organization because its staff and leadership are trans or queer people of color and because of the care offered.
Hunter worked at Casa Ruby from 2015 until 2018 as the chief operating officer before establishing TWCC.
Hunter said as a low-barrier shelter, Casa Ruby would first address a client’s needs — a warm shower or a meal — before conducting an intake form or psychosocial assessment. She said other organizations will first go through the technical processes before helping a client, or may not help clients that do not meet qualifications.
Hunter recalled a time when she drove by the Georgia Avenue shelter when it was closed and saw clients sleeping in the doorway. She said people would rather wait until Casa Ruby opened than going to another shelter.
“They’re not going to get that care,” Hunter said. “They’re not going to get that compassion. They’re not going to get that nuanced understanding from someone who actually lived that life.”