WASHINGTON, DC —
A new homeless shelter called Casa Ruby is opening in Washington, DC that is specifically for the LGBT community - lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender young people.
Twenty-four year-old Giselle Hartzog is transgender. She was kicked out of an all-women’s shelter before and will be one of the first residents of Casa Ruby.
“Once they found out I was trans, they were very discriminating against me and wouldn’t let me come back,” Hartzog said.
She ran away from her hometown in Mississippi four years ago because her mom did not approve of her son becoming a woman.
“It was a transition from me being who I wanted to be and my mother not so much seeing my point of view," Hartzog said.
She moved to Washington in 2011, where she frequently slept in the central train station and resorted to prostitution to make money. She was arrested earlier this year and her probation officer recommended her to Casa Ruby.
“It’s a house where people can be themselves," Hartzog said.
Ruby Corado set up the shelter for young people down the street from a drop-in center also run by Casa Ruby.
"Where they can be safe. And more importantly, for me, a place where they can be loved and where we can love one another,” Corado said.
Young residents can live here up to 18 months -- and are mentored throughout their stay, explains Larry Villegas, who directs Casa Ruby's transitional living program.
“People are going to be doing chores for example. There should be 35 hours per week of employment or community work or education or job training," he said.
"And we are going to help the participants to get to that place. And we want to make it in a way that’s always from ‘what did you do today to get better?’ and celebrate that accomplishment,” Villegas said.
Homeless advocates estimate that young LGBT people make up between 20 to 40 percent of the overall homeless youth population. That’s around 400,000 kids, some as young as 13 or 14.
Often, they are turned away from shelters because of their sexual orientation. So much so, the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued new guidelines to shelters earlier this year about allowing them in.
“I’m in a safe environment, food in my stomach, a roof over my head. You know so I really can’t ask for too much,” Hertzog said.
Casa Ruby will have 18 beds and a closet full of donated clothes and shoes for newcomers who arrive with nothing.
“My intentions from the beginning was to offer LGBT homeless youth the same things and the same commodities that are awarded to many people in our city," Corado said.
And it’s not just the things that will help residents, but the services -- like help signing up for health care and substance abuse treatment.
That support is the most important service, says Maria Foscarinis of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
“In many states, youths cannot gain access to these services simply because of their age. So, there’s lots of different barriers that need to be addressed to really solve the problems confronting them,” Foscarinis said.
National statistics show that LGBT youth are over 8 times more likely to try to commit suicide if they are rejected by their families. So for many of these young people checking in, Casa Ruby isn’t just a new home, but the beginning of a new life.