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Ruby Corado never expected it would happen to her. She had a good job, friends who loved her and she was a contributing member of her community. But then in 2008, she became the victim of a sexual assault.
"I lost everything," she says. "I became homeless."
As a transgender woman living in the District, Corado had seen scores of LGBT friends lose housing and end up on the streets. She just never thought she'd be among them.
"LGBT homelessness, it is a real issue. I lived it myself, even after I had a lot of economic opportunities," Corado says. "It can happen. You're not immune to it."
Corado is the founder and executive director of Casa Ruby, a nonprofit serving LGBT communities of color. People can swing by the three-story townhouse on Georgia Avenue to get a free meal, use the Internet, or catch some Spanish-language telenovellas on the TV.
But Corado wants to do more. Her own bout of homelessness and her work at Casa Ruby planted a seed, and now she wants to open the first adult LGBT homeless shelter in D.C. If it gets off the ground, the shelter would be one of the first in the country to cater to LGBT adults.
"The one thing I learned through my own transition, through my own life, is that I have to be persistent," she says. "I am hoping and praying that I will get a shelter by the end of the year."
Embracing a transgender identity
Corado is a plus-sized force of nature with flowing black hair and red nails so long it's a wonder how she operates her iPhone. She came to the U.S. in 1986. Her native El Salvador was engaged in a civil war and fleeing was the safest option for her family. A few years after she arrived in D.C., she knew there was something different about her.
"When I got here I basically got educated through the movies, and I knew that there were people who were gay. So my thing was well, I am gay because I like other men. That's what I thought," she says. "But as I started seeing more about the culture, I realized I was a little more gay than most gays."
A move to Dupont Circle in the late '90s exposed Corado to the city's transgender community. But coming out as trans was dangerous, even deadly. Transgender women were often brutalized and authorities were less than sensitive to their needs. If a trans woman made it past 30, she was considered an elder in the community.
Still, Corado had to be honest about who she was — a transgender woman. Growing up in El Salvador helped embolden her.
"There was something that took me back to the years growing up in a civil war," Corado says. "I had come from a childhood where I was used to seeing dead bodies in the streets. I was used to hearing the helicopters and the shootings and all of this."
War, Corado says, prepared her for her personal battles, and her work as an activist.
"It didn't matter that my sisters were being killed. I wanted to speak up."
Filling a void for LGBT communities
Casa Ruby opened its doors in June of 2012. Since then, the center has served more than 700 clients. They come to Casa Ruby for help with all types of issues — immigration, employment, housing. You name it and Corado has seen it. About half of her clients identify as transgender or gender non-conforming.
"Many of these individuals have left their countries due to persecution based on their sexual orientation," says Henry Maticorena, a volunteer at Casa Ruby. "And they carry with them a stigma for being different, for being unique, for expressing openly their gender identity.
"At Casa Ruby we provide them with a safe space where they can express their gender identity and sexual orientation openly without fear of being verbally harassed or bullied."
Corado has seen how Casa Ruby filled a void for LGBT communities of color here in the District. She wants to do the same with her proposed homeless shelter. And the need, she says, is critical. A recent survey showed that 40 percent of D.C.'s transgender community has been homeless at some point due to discrimination. And many were denied entry into shelters because of their gender status.
"I don't care if it takes me another 20 years, I will have the resources to help the people who come to Casa Ruby. And I think that because I'm committed to that, one day it will come," she says.
That optimism is welcomed by people like Ricky Falcon, who lost his job and his apartment last winter and has been living in a shelter. He's a Casa Ruby client as well as a volunteer, and he's hoping to find a permanent place to live soon.
"I would love to see this place become what Ruby wants it to be," says Falcon. "A shelter, somewhere where people could come and feel comfortable and not feel threatened by society. I want to feel that I could go to Casa Ruby and I'm home. I'm actually home."
[Music: "Come As You Are" by Caetano Veloso from A Foreign Sound]