Casa Ruby Is A 'Chosen Family' For Trans People Who Need A Home

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Ruby Corado runs Casa Ruby, a drop-in and service center for transgender people in Washington, D.C. Through the center, Corado helps people find housing, medical care and get food. Corado also has 22 beds in transitional housing for transgender adults and youth who would otherwise be homeless. (GRAIN for NPR)
Ruby Corado runs Casa Ruby, a drop-in and service center for transgender people in Washington, D.C. Through the center, Corado helps people find housing, medical care and get food. Corado also has 22 beds in transitional housing for transgender adults and youth who would otherwise be homeless. (GRAIN for NPR)

Editor's note: This story contains language that some may find offensive.

This story is part of an occasional series about individuals who don't have much money or power but do have a big impact on their communities.

If you're transgender in America, you're far more likely than other people to be unemployed, homeless and poor. And there's a 4 in 10 chance you've tried to kill yourself.

It can be a confusing and lonely life.

One woman who's been through it all is Ruby Corado. She's a 45-year-old transgender woman in Washington, D.C., who is now trying to help others along the difficult path.

Ruby Corado (top center) sits on the porch of Casa Ruby, a drop-in and service center for transgender people in Washington, D.C., while many of her clients, friends and employees hang out in front.
Ruby Corado (top center) sits on the porch of Casa Ruby, a drop-in and service center for transgender people in Washington, D.C., while many of her clients, friends and employees hang out in front.

Forty-year-old Kiera Atkins says she'd probably be dead without Corado. Atkins says after she came out as a woman last year, she went from being a software engineer earning a six-figure salary to being homeless and suicidal.

"First off, I was fired from my job for being transgender. Then after that, I was evicted. And then it just kind of went downhill from there," says Atkins.

She says today she's found hope at Casa Ruby, a nonprofit agency located in a yellow brick rowhouse in the nation's capital.

Corado is the founder and matriarch. With a deep, rich laugh, long red tinted hair and manicured nails, she holds court on the front porch, sitting in a purple plastic chair.

Corado greets the trans men and women who come here, looking for help with housing, health care, legal services and jobs. Corado calls them her sons and daughters, because she knows why they're really here.

Ruby Corado and Paty Hernandez (center) talk to Jocelyn Carrillo (right) at Casa Ruby. Corado was encouraging Carillo, a drag queen in the city, to have her fans get involved with outreach and advocacy for transgender people.
Ruby Corado and Paty Hernandez (center) talk to Jocelyn Carrillo (right) at Casa Ruby. Corado was encouraging Carillo, a drag queen in the city, to have her fans get involved with outreach and advocacy for transgender people.

"Most of the people who come to Casa Ruby don't have a family that accepts them, or that loves them for the most part. So we have a family here, and it is the concept of a chosen family," she says.

Corado says people here want a better life. They don't want to have to rely on drugs and prostitution to survive, which is what Corado did until a brutal attack by a client several years ago left her hospitalized and destitute.

She says the only thing that kept her going was knowing there were others like her who needed help.

So three years ago, Corado opened Casa Ruby using her own money, a lump sum payment she received from winning a disability case after she was attacked.

Today, Casa Ruby is a growing nonprofit. But more than anything, it's a haven for many in the transgender community.

Ruby Corado looks at the freshly painted nails of Lazema Mills, 30, at Casa Ruby. Mills lives in one of the transitional group homes Corado has opened in D.C.
Ruby Corado looks at the freshly painted nails of Lazema Mills, 30, at Casa Ruby. Mills lives in one of the transitional group homes Corado has opened in D.C.

Inside the house there are posters reminding people to get checked for HIV. Clients can meet with counselors, who speak English and Spanish. Downstairs there's a drop in center, with purple walls and stuffed teddy bears on the window sill, and free food for anyone who's hungry.

Kiera Atkins, the software engineer, now works here, redesigning the group's website. When she types, you can see that both of her arms are covered in scars. Atkins says she used to cut herself, because she was so unhappy living as a man.

"I was always jealous of my sister," says Atkins, with a little laugh.

Here, everyone understands what she's been through.

KayLynn Jones says the great thing about Casa Ruby is you can just be yourself. Jones is tall, statuesque, in tight black pants, high platform shoes and by her count, three layers of false eye lashes. She recently came out as a woman full-time.

Ruby Corado (second from right) and Selena Cruz, 21, whip their hair around playfully while joking with Lazema Mills, 30, (left) and Giselle Gartzog, 26.
Ruby Corado (second from right) and Selena Cruz, 21, whip their hair around playfully while joking with Lazema Mills, 30, (left) and Giselle Gartzog, 26.

"You know, I was tired of going back and forth. I was tired of being Kevin in the daytime, and being KayLynn at night. I was just tired of that. It's too frustrating," says Jones.

But coming out also meant losing her mother's support and a place to live. Jones dropped out of college, and became a prostitute. Then she heard about Ruby Corado, and what a well respected advocate she was, and how when Corado got married last year, then D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray walked her down the aisle.

"That's the reason why I love being here. Because, you know, to see someone that is successful and is a trans woman, you know I want to be around that," says Jones, who adds that she's returning to school because she too wants to be a success.

Corado says some people are so battered by the time they get here, that it can take a lot to get them back on their own feet.

"I don't believe in just healing with little band-aids. I think they need major surgery sometimes," she says. "And I want to make sure that once they're all healed, they have an opportunity to find jobs, secure housing, go to school."

Lissa Alfaro, 34, (right) and volunteer Vanessa Arevalo, both originally from El Salvador, spend time at Casa Ruby.
Lissa Alfaro, 34, (right) and volunteer Vanessa Arevalo, both originally from El Salvador, spend time at Casa Ruby.

So she tries to provide the services they need. Or, if she can't, she finds someone who can.

Corado says it's the kind of help she never received. She came to the U.S. as a teenager from El Salvador in the 1980s. Initially, she lived as a gay male, but says that didn't seem quite right. Even as a small child she felt like she should be a girl.

So she made the transition about 20 years ago. Corado says she was finally happy with herself, but found out she'd also transitioned to poverty and a life of ridicule. She could no longer get work. She was pelted with eggs, thrown off buses and asked to leave stores.

"For the first time I endure real violence. Before, people would just say, oh faggot, you know, and didn't try to attempt to hit me. People felt that they had the right to fix me," she says.

Corado thinks attitudes are changing, but slowly.

Ruby Corado (left) holds hands with her friend and Casa Ruby board member Consuella Lopez on the porch of one of the transitional group homes Corado runs in Washington, D.C.
Ruby Corado (left) holds hands with her friend and Casa Ruby board member Consuella Lopez on the porch of one of the transitional group homes Corado runs in Washington, D.C.

She recently opened two more houses, with the help of grants from the city and foundations. One house is a transitional home for gay and transgender homeless youth. The other is for homeless adults. Many transgender people say they have a difficult time staying in homeless shelters, which are usually designated for either men or women.

On a recent night, many of Casa Ruby's clients gathered at the adult house for a group dinner. Several people prepared chicken, tacos and rice in the kitchen, while others sat in the living room listening and dancing to music. It was noisy and choatic, like a big family gathering.

When the food was finally ready, everyone got together in a circle and held hands. Corado took the floor.

"I just want to say, before we bless the food, that I thank you for believing in me. Because there are people who have dreams to do work in their community and they can't do it," she said, her voice breaking. "But I'm one of the lucky ones."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

These days there are transgender stars on TV and transgender models, one of whom gave a popular TED Talk about her life. Still, most transgender people in America face lots of challenges, and theirs can be a confusing and lonely path. One woman who has seen it all is Ruby Corado. Now she's trying to help others. NPR's Pam Fessler has her story, part of our occasional series Doing More With Less about those who have little money making a big impact. And a warning, this piece contains language that some might find offensive.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Here's one thing you should probably know about Ruby Corado. It's where Kiera Atkins thinks she'd be without her.

KIERA ATKINS: Probably dead.

FESSLER: Probably dead, Atkins says, because when she came out as a woman last year, she went from being a software engineer earning six figures to being homeless and suicidal.

ATKINS: First off, I was fired from my job for being transgender. Then after that, I was evicted and then it just kind of went downhill from that.

FESSLER: But today, she says, she's found hope at Casa Ruby, a yellow brick row house in Washington, D.C.

RUBY CORADO: (Laughter) She say you have to do it now. I said, no, you just came here today.

FESSLER: The founder is Ruby Corado, who with her deep rich laugh, long, red-tinted hair and manicured nails, holds court out on the front porch. She's sitting in a purple plastic chair, her throne.

CORADO: She said - I said you're a little slow. She said you're my mama.

FESSLER: Corado is a 45-year-old transgender woman surrounded by other trans men and women here to get help with housing, healthcare and jobs. She calls them her sons and daughters.

CORADO: Most of the people who come to Casa Ruby don't have a family that accepts them or that loves them for the most part, so we have a family here, and it is the concept of a chosen family.

FESSLER: She says people here want to have a better life and not rely on drugs and prostitution to survive. That's what Corado did until a brutal attack left her hospitalized and destitute. She says what kept her going was knowing there were others like her who needed her help. So three years ago, Corado took what little money she had and opened Casa Ruby.

It's now a growing at nonprofit, but more than anything, it's a haven. Inside there are posters reminding people to get to get checked for HIV. Downstairs, a drop-in center has purple walls and stuffed teddy bears on the windowsill. Kiera Atkins, the software engineer, now works here redesigning the group's website.

ATKINS: Kind of modernizing everything.

FESSLER: When she types, I can see that her arms are covered in scars. Atkins says she used to cut herself. She was so unhappy as a man.

ATKINS: I always was jealous of my sister.

FESSLER: In here, everyone understands.

CORADO: Hi, it's nice to see you.

FESSLER: KayLynn Jones says the great thing about Casa Ruby is you can just be yourself. Jones is tall, statuesque in tight, black pants, high platform shoes and, by her count, three layers of false eyelashes. She recently came out as a woman full-time.

KAYLYNN JONES: You know, I was tired of going back and forth. I was tired of being Kevin in the daytime and being KayLynn at night. I was just tired of that. It's too frustrating.

FESSLER: But coming out also meant losing her mother's support and a place to live. Jones dropped out of college and became a prostitute. Then she heard about Ruby Corado - how she'd become a well-respected activist in the city, and how when Corado got married last year, then-D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray walked her down the aisle.

JONES: That's the reason why I love being here because, you know, to see someone that is successful and is a trans woman, you know, I want to be around that.

FESSLER: Corado says people here are so battered by the time they get to Casa Ruby, they need more than a few Band-Aids.

CORADO: I think they need major surgery sometimes, and I want to make sure that once they're all healed, they have an opportunity to find jobs, secure housing, go to school.

FESSLER: The kind of help Corado says she didn't get. She came to the U.S. from El Salvador as a teen and originally lived as a gay male, but that didn't seem quite right. She says when she became a woman, she was finally happy with herself but also poor and ridiculed. She could no longer get work, and in one of many insults, she was pelted with eggs.

CORADO: For the first time, I endure real violence. Before, people would just say, oh, faggot, you know, and didn't try to attempt to hit me. People felt that they had the right to fix me.

FESSLER: She says such attitudes are changing but slowly.

CORADO: So wash your hands first, and then you can come help me with the chicken.

FESSLER: So Corado, with city and foundation help, has opened two more houses - one of for gay and transgender homeless youth, another for homeless adults, who on a recent night gathered at the house for dinner.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Where's your trashcan?

CORADO: Right there.

FESSLER: Several people are in the kitchen preparing chicken and tacos and rice. Others are in the living room dancing. It's chaotic, like a big family gathering. When the food's finally ready, everyone gets in a circle and holds hands. Corado takes the floor.

CORADO: I just want to say before we bless the food that I thank you for believing in me because there are people who have dreams to do work in their community, and they can't do it.

FESSLER: You can see from the expressions around the room that Corado is well loved. Still, it's starting to get late.

CORADO: Does anybody want to share something because this space is open?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We want to eat.

CORADO: Does anybody want to eat?

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.