Thursday, June 1, 2023

Casa Ruby shelter closes DC programs for LGBTQ youth, raises questions



Casa Ruby, a nonprofit that provided shelter and transitional housing to LGBTQ youth in the District, has closed all of its programs, multiple employees told The Washington Post.

Three employees said they had not been paid in six weeks, and residents who were living in the nonprofit’s transitional homes were forced to move. The organization’s last board member resigned in April.

The closures mark the latest chapter in a tumultuous year for the nonprofit. Last fall, the D.C. Department of Human Services said it would not renew an $839,460 grant to Casa Ruby to run a low-barrier shelter. The shelter, which housed at least 10 young people at the time, shut down last September, and Ruby Corado, the nonprofit’s founder, announced her resignation soon after.

Losing the grant was a blow, but employees say the nonprofit has continued to take in hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and donations, and they continued to offer an array of programming, including transitional housing at multiple sites around the city. As of Friday, employees said, they no longer had office supplies, internet or air conditioning. The transitional houses have been vacated, and programs designed to help immigrants and victims of crimes have been suspended. The Post emailed and called Corado, but she could not be reached for comment. Casa Ruby’s interim executive director also could not be reached.

“It’s deserted,” said Kisha Allure, an employee who spent 10 years at the nonprofit, most recently as the director of its victim services program. “We took in vulnerable individuals 24 hours a day when nobody wanted them. We had programs for people to literally build their lives back up. We had trans women who were D.C. natives, trans women of color, and we kept them in a safe space as the mission told us to do. The full respite care center for trans people of color — built by us, ran by us — is now gone in smoke.”

Casa Ruby, shelter for LGBTQ youth, loses D.C. government funding

Corado opened Casa Ruby in 2012 as a small drop-in center with a handful of unpaid volunteers. In less than a decade, she grew the nonprofit into an organization with more than 100 employees, thousands of clients and multiple sites across the city. In recent years, Corado has announced the creation of a pharmacy and a housing program specifically for LGBTQ immigrants seeking asylum in the United States.

By 2020, Casa Ruby was bringing in nearly $4.2 million a year in revenue, federal tax filings show. Corado’s salary grew as the nonprofit did. In 2013, she earned just $31,895, according to federal tax filings; by 2020, Corado was earning $260,000.

Much of that revenue came from the District. The city’s Department of Human Services (DHS) has awarded Casa Ruby nearly two dozen grants since 2015, and the mayor’s office funded the organization, too.

In 2021, for instance, DHS gave Casa Ruby three grants for a total of nearly $1.7 million. That money was supposed to pay for a low-barrier shelter and transitional housing.

But over the years, landlords and other vendors have repeatedly claimed that Casa Ruby did not pay its bills on time, according to court records and more than 8,000 emails to and from DHS officials that The Post obtained through a public records request.

Brian Lassiter, whose company Main-One Solutions provided security at Casa Ruby, told DHS officials in a March 2021 email that Corado had not paid him for two months’ work. Lassiter told The Post in February that his business is a “small, minority-run company,” and Corado owes him $38,000.

“We are in dire need of those funds,” he said.

When DHS employees emailed Corado in February 2021 to ask about payment for the security firm, Corado told them she had paid every invoice she had received, the emails show.

Angelique Best, a landlord who leased a spot on Columbia Road NW to Casa Ruby for transitional housing, sued Corado twice in landlord-tenant court. Francis Whelan, a landlord who owned a townhouse on Kennedy Street NW, told DHS officials in March 2021 that Casa Ruby and Corado were “chronically late” paying the rent and often did not pay the full amount.

“We are in a very precarious financial position at this time and have to sell the house, pay off the mortgage and use the rest to keep our store afloat,” Whelan wrote in an email to DHS program manager Tamara Mooney on March 24, 2021.

The agency’s deputy administrator Tania Mortensen said in emails that her team reviewed invoices submitted by Casa Ruby between October 2020 and January 2021 and found that the nonprofit had billed DHS for rent on Whelan’s property each month. Whelan said that he had not received payment for those months.

“Ruby Corado is out of the country and we have not had contact with her,” Mortensen wrote to her colleagues at DHS on March 23, 2021.

The Menkiti Group, which owns a Georgia Avenue space that Casa Ruby used as a low-barrier shelter, alleged in landlord-tenant court earlier this year that the nonprofit owes them more than a million dollars in unpaid rent, utilities and late fees. A trial has been scheduled for August.

DHS had awarded Casa Ruby $839,460 to provide 50 shelter beds on Georgia Avenue. Inspections revealed, though, that the shelter was only zoned for office space, and the nonprofit did not have a certificate of occupancy, agency emails show. Furthermore, the program, which moved to Dupont Circle in November 2020, was not serving 50 people, DHS officials found. Fewer than a dozen people occupied the Dupont Circle space, which Casa Ruby had rented for what it promised would be a “PReP Art Boutique and pharmacy,” April 2021 emails obtained from DHS show, and former employees confirmed.

An April 2021 email obtained by The Post shows that an investigator from the District’s Office of Program Review, Monitoring and Investigation reviewed the Dupont Circle lease and found it expressly forbade any residential use.

A DHS spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In the months leading up to the closure of the shelter, the emails also show that DHS workers tried unsuccessfully to work out a deal with Corado to keep it open.

In the days after DHS announced it would not renew the grant, Casa Ruby raised $130,000 on GoFundMe and promised the nonprofit would continue to provide shelter beds to clients who experience homelessness.

Corado had also raised $108,585 in March 2021 through GoFundMe for the same program. Still, on Sept. 30, Corado closed the shelter and laid off the employees there.

Denzel Mackall, who worked in the shelter at the time, said he was laid off with no notice. In the months after, he saw multiple clients “fall off the wagon” and return to the streets.

“It was traumatizing,” he said.

Tania Cordova, an employee who managed the nonprofit’s program for LGBTQ asylum seekers, said she has also witnessed both clients and employees relapse after the shelter and other programs closed.

Corado, who is transgender, often said she was proud of the fact that she employed so many trans people. Nearly all of her employees were transgender, and many had overcome great hardship, Cordova said.

“And mostly, we have all been addicted to alcohol or drugs, and we had overcome all these problems,” Cordova said. “But now, all this depression and everything that we are facing at Casa Ruby has triggered our anxiety. The impact is not just financial. It’s emotional, mental and physical.”

In May, the chair of the board of trustees for Union Temple Baptist Church, which leased four properties on W Street SE to Casa Ruby, said that the nonprofit owed the church $67,866.77 in unpaid rent, a letter sent to Casa Ruby employees from the board and shared with The Post shows. In the letter, board chair Kathy McDaniel said she had tried multiple times to reach Corado or a current chief executive for Casa Ruby without success.

“Therefore Tenant shall vacate the premises and remove all personal belongings on or before” May 15, the letter stated.

Someone answering the phone at Union Temple said no one was available to comment.

Casa Ruby had been renting the homes as part of a pilot program to offer transitional housing to LGBTQ people seeking asylum in the United States. Since the program opened in the fall of 2020, it has housed asylum seekers from Russia, El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries, Cordova said.

Cordova, an employee whom Corado had recruited from Chicago to manage the program, said she was living in one of the W Street homes rent-free as part of her employment. This spring, she and the asylum seekers had to scramble to find a new place to live. The sudden eviction left many distraught, Cordova said.

“They created a family in this immigrant house,” Cordova said. “That was their community. They are already fleeing from their countries because they have faced violence because they are part of the LGBTQ community.”

Ruby Corado, founder of Casa Ruby, resigns as executive director

In a Facebook Live video last October, when Corado announced that she was stepping down, she said she was appointing Alexis Blackmon to replace her as executive director. Blackmon left the position in February. She told The Post she never had access to the nonprofit’s bank accounts, and three current employees confirmed that. Blackmon declined to comment further. In May, the Casa Ruby Twitter account announced that Jacqueline Franco had taken over as interim executive director. The Post tried to contact Franco via email and Facebook, but did not reach her. No one answered the phone number listed on Casa Ruby’s website, and the voice mailbox is full.

In a February interview, Corado said all her actions were approved by Casa Ruby’s board of directors.

“With my advocacy, we changed legislation, we changed a lot of things,” Corado told The Post. “The politicians used me and, I’m not going to lie to you, I ended up having a better life. I’m not going to deny that part. But it was never meant for me to be on top while the rest of the people struggle. … The people who truly need me, guess what, they’re okay with me.”

The Post contacted every board member last fall, but only one — Meredith Zoltick — replied. Zoltick had been on the board since the nonprofit opened and told The Post last fall that she remained enthusiastic about Casa Ruby’s mission. Zoltick, who is no longer on the board, declined to comment on Friday.

Another former board member, Hassan Naveed, confirmed Friday that he is no longer on the board. Two other former board members — Jack Harrison-Quintana and Miguel Rivera — did not respond to The Post this week.

Multiple employees told The Post that they have not heard from Corado since May. Public records show Corado sold her home in Prince George’s County in January for $775,000. Last year, Corado announced that she planned to open a branch of Casa Ruby in her home country, El Salvador, which she left as a teenager. A Facebook page for that outpost shows Corado attended events in San Salvador in March.

Several former employees told The Post that their paychecks often arrived late or not at all. At least one also filed a complaint with DHS in February 2021, agency emails show. But this spring has marked a new low, current employees said. Three employees told The Post they have gone three pay periods without a check, and they’re not sure how to appeal for the income they’ve earned.

In February, Corado told The Post that she has done nothing wrong, and as proof she sent a document showing the City’s Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants had awarded her $104,959 in January.

The mayor’s office did not return a request for comment Friday.

A July 13 email obtained by The Post shows that Cristina Sacco, associate general counsel in the executive office of the mayor, told three Casa Ruby employees that the District would not release any more grant money to the nonprofit until the District receives proof of payroll and other required documents.

“It was communicated to us that Ruby Corado is the only person with access and control over Casa Ruby’s bank accounts and the only authority that could remit payments to employees,” Sacco wrote. “It was indicated that Casa Ruby at some point was not able to pay rent and its employees. Consequently, Casa Ruby had to relocate all of its clients. All of this was concerning to us and given we need to be good stewards of the city’s funds and we want to make sure disbursed funds are used to pay employees for their work, in accordance with payroll schedules reported under the grant.”

Allure, Casa Ruby’s director of victims services, told The Post that she earned $46,000 a year running a program that helped victims of sexual assault and hate crimes. Before Friday, that program had 300 clients. Allure said she offered support groups, a gardening therapy group and classes to help victims of crimes build resiliency and get back on their feet.

“My whole program is destroyed now,” Allure said.

She told The Post that neither she nor her assistant has been paid since June 3. She has depleted her savings and is unsure how she will cover her rent.

In a Facebook live Allure posted Friday, she addressed Corado directly.

“You owe us money,” Allure said. “Wherever you are, you need to come to your entity … and you need to come and speak to your staff. … We advocated for you. In 2022, where are you?”

Annys Shin contributed to this report.

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