The longest-running LGBTQ homeless shelter in the nation’s capital has been forced to turn away clients experiencing homelessness, most of them transgender women, after the city declined to renew a large portion of its funding.
Ruby Corado, founder of Casa Ruby, the only bilingual LGBTQ services organization in Washington, received notification late last month from the D.C. Department of Human Services that its annual $839,000 grant to fund a 50-bed shelter in Northwest D.C. was not being renewed for fiscal year 2022, which started on Oct. 1.
“We appreciate the work that Casa Ruby has done to serve homeless youth in the District of Columbia,” read the letter, signed by Sheila Strain Clark, interim deputy administrator of DHS’s Family Services Administration.
In the letter, which Corado shared with NBC News, Clark added that the department may extend the grant in the future, “at its discretion, and subject to the availability of funding.”
Casa Ruby’s operating costs totaled about $3.2 million in 2019, according to the most recent publicly available information. The discontinued funding represents about 40 percent of its anticipated city financing, according to Corado, who said Casa Ruby will still get about $1.3 million from the District this fiscal year.
But it means the organization has had to eliminate 28 jobs, stop offering overnight stays at its Georgia Avenue shelter and cease 24-hour drop-in services, according to Corado.
The letter didn’t come as a surprise, she added, as the agency had been at odds with Casa Ruby for some time.
“The surprise is they did it in such an evil way,” she said, noting Casa Ruby was given less than a week’s notice that the grant would not be renewed. “These clients are in crisis and don’t want to leave.”
Founded in 2006, Casa Ruby provides food, housing and case management for a diverse community, though many clients are transgender and gender-nonconforming young people of color. Initially, the organization operated a single drop-in center, but it has expanded to seven locations in the D.C. metro area, including multiple group homes, a small pharmacy and a legal services office.
It has operated the Casa Ruby Shelter on Georgia Avenue in D.C.’s Shepard Park neighborhood for four years, after moving from a row house in 2017. Corado said the shelter assisted about 20,000 people a year, with the drop-in center alone welcoming 250 individuals on any given day.
But rent is nearly $30,000 a month, and staffing adds another $41,000 monthly, according to Corado. “Maybe $839,000 sounds like a little bit, but to us, it’s huge,” she said, “because it disrupts the biggest operation we’ve ever had.”
In a Facebook post on Sept. 25, Corado said that, because of the budget cut, Casa Ruby would have to close the low-barrier shelter in Shepard Park imminently “during Covid and nearing hypothermia season.” A low-barrier shelter places minimal requirements on clients looking to stay there.
“Some housing programs will kick them out if they don’t come home at 10 o’clock, but I don’t do that,” Corado told NBC News in 2017. “I work with them. I understand them because they have trauma. I have trauma.”
The organization has operated an emergency housing shelter since 2012. Corado calls it “our most important program,” adding that more than half of the clients come from neighboring states.
The shelter closing was not only a great loss to the Delaware, Maryland, Virginia area, “but now we have lost a national resource that welcomes hundreds of vulnerable clients who seek refuge from violence every year,” she wrote in the Facebook post.
“Now there will be no safe space, and that’s a tragedy,” Corado told NBC News.
Some former longtime clients, many of them trans women of color like Corado, had been working for Casa Ruby and now face unemployment and homelessness, Corado said.
“Some employees have to go back to the street and engage in survival [sex] work,” she wrote on Facebook.
Corado told the local news site DCist that, over the years, the District has praised Casa Ruby when it was politically expedient, but opposed her goals when they diverged from city officials’ agenda. “I was good for a photo op,” she said. “But when the other issues came, that was it.”
Her organization’s relationship with DHS began to sour about three years ago, Corado said, when she had a disagreement with a DHS official According to Corado, the official said she had developer friends looking to build a space in Northeast D.C.’s Deanwood neighborhood, “and if we were willing to support them, we could get a drop-in center.”
Corado felt the location was unsafe for her clients, as it would be near the site where Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds, a 22-year-old trans woman, was shot and killed during an armed robbery in July 2016, the Washington Blade reported. Prosecutors accused two men of targeting transgender women in the area (a mistrial was declared in 2019).
“I lost a lot of kids in that neighborhood,” Corado said. “Not all money is good money.”
Ever since she declined the offer, Corado said, “the relationship changed.”
Six months ago, in an administrative complaint against DHS, Corado claimed that the same official with whom she had a disagreement three years ago treated her and other Casa Ruby employees in an “unprofessional, harassing, abusive and discriminatory” manner.
The official, whose name has been redacted from public copies of the complaint, allegedly “unnecessarily inserted herself” in the Casa Ruby operations and sent clients from another shelter to Casa Ruby without proper warning about possible exposure to Covid-19.
“The trust between [redacted] and Casa Ruby has been eviscerated,” Corado wrote in the complaint. “I personally have had conversations with Casa Ruby staff and the staff of other shelters and have been told that [redacted] maintains either a physical or personal ‘blacklist’ for shelters she does not like.”
Corado said DHS started to try to defund her organization a month after Casa Ruby’s complaint was filed, first, by cutting funding for the Georgia Avenue shelter in half, and eventually by withdrawing it altogether.
“I cannot say they defunded us because of that discrimination complaint, but I can say after that, a series of events took place,” Corado said. “I think it’s clear that they look at Casa Ruby as Ruby Corado. They don’t see the clients.”
In a statement emailed to NBC News, DHS said the agency “is committed to the safety and well-being of youth, including LGBTQ+ youth, who we know disproportionately experience homelessness.”
While it did not address the specific issues that led the agency to terminate funding — or respond to NBC News’ request to speak with the official named in Corado’s complaint — the statement indicated that “grant renewal decisions are based on ensuring accountability and continuity of quality services and the safety of our residents.”
Allocations for LGBTQ youth services were not being decreased, DHS noted, but rather redirected to other organizations, including Covenant House Washington, which took the space in Deanwood that Corado declined. Clients at Casa Ruby’s shelter are being redirected to Covenant House.
“Trans people have been shot there, and bullied and harassed,” Corado said of the neighborhood. “Most of our properties are in the Northwest because [our clients] feel safer there — we’re trying to help them build up their lives.”
Corado has been determined to keep Casa Ruby’s doors open throughout the pandemic — providing meals, emergency housing and emotional check-ins, “because so many of our clients had nowhere else to go.”
In March 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 crisis in the U.S., she told the New York Daily News that Casa Ruby had provided 327 shelter stays in just 10 days, an uptick of nearly 40 percent from the previous month. It was the only shelter in D.C. that remained open 24 hours during lockdown, she told NBC News, offering services to roughly 54,000 people last year alone.
DHS also funds a six-person emergency housing center run by Casa Ruby and another transitional house with space for 10 more.
“I have to cross my fingers and assume that they’re still funding us” for those programs, Corado said.
Casa Ruby also receives money from the DC Office of Victim Services, which increased its funding for the organization in 2022, Corado said, because it was happy with its Covid-19 efforts. (The organization also got a budget increase from D.C.’s Health Department and the city’s Office of Latino Affairs.)
Corado is hoping grassroots supporters can help the organization weather the current crisis, at least temporarily. A GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $115,000 to date.
As of now, the Georgia Avenue facility is still operating, but the overnight shelter is closed and the support center is no longer open 24/7. “We’re hoping to continue as much as we can,” Corado said. Some clients who were unwilling to be relocated to Covenant House have been placed in hotel rooms.
In the long term, Corado said, she’d like to make Casa Ruby less reliant on government largess. “If we’re lucky we can raise enough resources to do it on our own — we’ve done it before.”
Last year, Corado said, she made the decision to step down as Casa Ruby’s executive director “because I did not see a compromise from city leaders.”
“I cannot fight a system that is not meant to be broken,” she said, adding that she grew tired of the political aspect of her work
Due to the pandemic, however, she didn’t follow through last year, but now she said it’s time to pass the reins — and said she’s determined to see the organization she founded outlive her tenure.
“It has to be the new generations stepping forward,” she said.
On Friday, Corado announced that Alexis Blackmon, Casa Ruby’s director of government affairs and a former client, has been appointed interim director while a national search is started for new leadership.
“For now, what I want is to make sure we focus on the real issue here, which is that vulnerable people no longer have a safe space,” Corado said.