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Number of D.C. shelters serving LGBTQ homeless is growing

Existing groups step in to fill gaps created by Casa Ruby shutdown

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Roughly 1,300 youth are experiencing homelessness in D.C., according to recent estimates.

The Wanda Alston Foundation states on its website that it made history in 2008 when it opened D.C.’s first transitional housing program solely dedicated to LGBTQ+ youth ages 18 to 24 experiencing homelessness.

As part of that program, the foundation, named after the late and beloved LGBTQ rights advocate Wanda Alston, has since opened two more LGBTQ youth homeless facilities, including one that opened last year that also made history.

Referred to as Renita’s, it’s a two-bed, two-year transitional housing program believed to be the first known such facility focused specifically on serving homeless transgender men of color.

In January 2017, the D.C. LGBTQ youth advocacy organization SMYAL opened the first of five housing sites it currently operates that can serve up to 66 LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.

Like the Alston Foundation, SMYAL states on its website that it provides a wide range of services for its LGBTQ youth residents in addition to a safe and stable shelter, including food, case management services, mental health counseling, crisis intervention, and employment related skills development.

The two groups also have designated at least one of their housing facilities to offer their residents extended transitional housing for up to six years.

Beginning in 2012, Casa Ruby, under the direction of its founder Ruby Corado, evolved into the city’s largest LGBTQ specific emergency shelter facility, operating what it said was a greater than 50-bed shelter program at seven locations. The program provided services in both English and Spanish to youth and some adults. It had a special outreach to transgender women of color in need of housing.

But due to a financial crisis brought about by the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in D.C. government grants and which remains under investigation by the Office of the D.C. Attorney General, Casa Ruby curtailed and eventually shut down all of its operations during a year-long period that culminated this past July. In court documents filed as part of a civil complaint filed against Casa Ruby, the AG’s office said, among other things, the loss of city funding was brought about by Casa Ruby’s failure to provide required finance reports verifying how the money was spent. Corado disputes that allegation.

At the request of the AG’s office, a D.C. Superior Court judge has placed Casa Ruby in receivership and appointed the Wanda Alston Foundation as the receiver.

In a report released last month, the Alston Foundation recommended that Casa Ruby be dissolved, saying its debts far exceed any remaining assets. The judge has yet to hand down a ruling on whether to dissolve the once highly regarded LGBTQ organization or take steps to determine if it can be revived.

Since its shutdown, other local organizations, including SMYAL, have taken steps to provide support for the Casa Ruby clients impacted by the shutdown.

“Following the closure of Casa Ruby, SMYAL has been working with our partners at other housing providers, the D.C. Department of Human Services, and the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs to identify and fill gaps in services,” SMYAL spokesperson Hancie Stokes told the Washington Blade.

“Most directly, SMYAL has launched a new Latinx Street Outreach program that is designed to support Spanish-speaking LGBTQ youth who may have been connected to services or in need of new services,” Stokes said in an email. “We started piloting this program just last month and have already begun working with 22 Spanish-speaking youth to connect or reconnect them with services, including housing, and assist them with obtaining vital documents, and navigating legal procedures,” she said.

In September 2021, the D.C. Department of Human Services informed Casa Ruby it would not renew its main grant that funded the Casa Ruby homeless shelter program. At that time, DHS announced it had awarded a grant for a new D.C. LGBTQ youth homeless shelter to Covenant House, a nonprofit group that provides homeless youth services nationwide. The Washington Post reported the grant was for $648,000,

Covenant House announced it opened the new 24-bed LGBTQ youth shelter, called Shine, on Sept. 30, 2021, in the city’s Deanwood neighborhood in Northeast D.C. Although other non-LGBTQ organizations currently provide homeless-related services, including shelter accommodations, for LGBTQ youth, the Covenant House Shine facility is believed to be the city’s first LGBTQ shelter operated by a non-LGBTQ specific organization.

“Most LGBTQ+ young people access services from non-LGBTQ-specific agencies,” Covenant House states on its D.C. website. “At Covenant House, we’re proud of the diversity of the youth in our houses and the staff who welcome and serve them,” the statement says. “All young people facing homelessness are welcome here and are embraced with unconditional love, absolute respect, and relentless support.”

With nearly all LGBTQ specific homeless facilities in D.C. focusing on youth, the city’s first official shelter for LGBTQ adults opened its doors on July 14 of this year following a ribbon-cutting ceremony led by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

The 40-bed shelter, located in the city’s Marshall Heights neighborhood at 400 50th St., S.E, will accommodate unaccompanied adults 25 years of age and older, according to a statement released by the mayor’s office.

“The shelter will provide trauma-informed case management services including mental health, substance abuse treatment, medical, and victims’ services,” the statement says.

“We are proud to cut the ribbon on a shelter that embodies our D.C. values as well as our commitment to making homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring,” Bowser said at the ceremony. “With this new facility, we’re breaking down barriers to shelter, building community, connecting residents with the trauma-informed services they need to live healthy, happy lives,” the mayor said.

Under city funding, the new LGBTQ adult shelter is being operated by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP), the statement from the mayor’s office says. It says two other local nonprofit groups, Coalition for the Homeless and the KBEC Group, Inc., will assist TCP in operating the shelter.

At least two other non-LGBTQ locally based organizations – the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) and Sasha Bruce Youthwork – also provide services for homeless LGBTQ youth, including housing-related services, the two groups state on their websites.

Stokes, the SMYAL spokesperson, said the non-LGBTQ organizations operating homeless programs for LGBTQ people are meeting a need for increased services. But she said additional training may be needed to ensure that all organizations can fully meet the specific needs of their LGBTQ clients.

“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to ensure LGBTQ youth who are matched with non-LGBTQ-specific providers are affirmed, welcomed, and supported fully,” Stokes said. 

“SMYAL and our partners have been working to increase cultural competency among all housing providers, but there is a continued need to invest in training providers to build capacity to directly serve LGBTQ youth, as well as creating solid foundations for additional providers who are accessible to LGBTQ youth,” she said.

The 2022 Point-in-Count findings show a continued trend in decreasing numbers of homeless people in D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser pointed out at the time the results were released in April that the total homeless count of 4,410 was down from 8,350 homeless people counted in 2016.

The mayor noted that the 2022 findings show single adult homelessness decreased 12 percent from the 2021 count and family homelessness was down by 14 percent from 2021.

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District of Columbia

Nex Benedict honored at D.C. candlelight vigil

Upwards of 100 people paid tribute to nonbinary Okla. student at As You Are

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A candlelight vigil is held outside of the LGBTQ café and bar As You Are on Feb. 22, 2024, for 16-year-old nonbinary student Nex Benedict. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

Nearly 100 people turned out on Feb. 22 for a candlelight vigil hosted by the D.C. LGBTQ café and bar As You Are to pay tribute to 16-year-old nonbinary student Nex Benedict.

Benedict died Feb. 8 at a hospital in Owasso, Okla., one day after family members say Benedict was beaten up by three older female students in an Owasso High School bathroom after a fight broke out. Owasso police have said they are investigating the circumstances surrounding Benedict’s death but said preliminary autopsy findings do not show the death was caused by physical injuries.

Family members, including Benedict’s mother, told news media outlets that Benedict suffered severe bruises to their face and head and the family believes the injuries from an assault caused their child’s death. Family members have also said Benedict had been targeted for bullying at school because of their status as a nonbinary person.

People who spoke at the As You Are candlelight vigil said they considered the death an anti-LGBTQ hate crime.

“Today we are brought together to mourn the loss of Nex Benedict,” As You Are co-owner Rachel “Coach” Pike told the gathering, which was held on the As You Are outdoor patio and surrounding sidewalk. “Nex Benedict, your life matters. It will always matter, and more than that your life was precious,” Pike said.

“You had the right to live as you were and all parts of your identity were beautiful and should have been celebrated, supported, and safe,” Pike added.

Pike and other speakers, some of whom identified as nonbinary and transgender, pointed out that Benedict’s family are members of the Choctaw Nation, a Native American community. A speaker at the vigil who identified himself as Bo and said he identified as a two-spirit individual called on the gathering to pay tribute to Benedict’s role as one of the Choctaw people.

“When I first heard the news of Nex Benedict’s murder I was shocked,” Bo said. “I thought of how young. I thought about how much life was taken from this child.”

Another speaker, native American advocate Shiala King, whose family are members of the Sicangu Lakota Nation in South Dakota, arranged for her father, Frank John King, a faith leader and medicine man, to speak to the gathering by phone hookup from his residence in South Dakota. After greeting the gathering and expressing his condolences over the death of Benedict, Frank King further honored Benedict by singing a spiritual song in the Lakota language as part of a tradition of uplifting the spirit of beloved people who pass away.

Jo McDaniel, the other co-owner of As You Are whose also Pike’s spouse, said they were pleased with the response to their announcement of the vigil on social media. 

“To see this child taken from us this way, it’s chilling and it’s horrible and it’s not right and it’s not fair,” McDaniel told the Washington Blade after the vigil ended. “And so, we knew that the only thing we could do to help our community heal was to gather. And we wanted to do that in as honorable and wonderful a way as possible as that kid deserves,” she said.

Sue Benedict, Nex Benedict’s mother, told the British newspaper The Independent that Nex was a “courageous, smart teenager who had simply been living their true identity.” The Independent reports that Sue Benedict said Nex had been subjected to taunts, insults and bullying due to their gender fluid identity for over a year. 

Owasso police officials have said detectives were interviewing school officials and students to obtain more details on how the fight started and whether charges will be brought against those who allegedly assaulted Benedict. A police spokesperson told The Independent police were awaiting the findings of toxicology and autopsy reports from the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office to determine whether anyone will be charged with a criminal offense.

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District of Columbia

New gay bar on 14th Street to open in April

Owners say Crush to offer ‘cozy, inclusive space’

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Exterior of Crush. (Photo courtesy of Crush)

A new D.C. bar catering to the LGBTQ community called Crush is expected to open for business in April in a two-story building with a roof garden at 2007 14th St., N.W., in the center of one of the city’s bustling nightlife neighborhoods. 

A statement released by co-owners Mark Rutstein and Stephen Rutgers says the new bar will provide an atmosphere that blends “nostalgia with contemporary nightlife” in a building that once was home to a popular music store and radio supply shop.

“This new venue, catering especially to the LGBTQ+ community, offers a cozy, inclusive space that reminisces about the times of record stores and basement hangouts with friends,” the statement says. “In its past life as a music store and radio supply shop, Crush transforms its legacy into a modern-day haven,” the statement continues. “It features top-notch DJ booths, a dance floor and a summer garden, alongside a premium sound system to ensure every night is memorable.” 

Rutstein told the Washington Blade the new bar will have a capacity of accommodating 300 people on its two floors. He notes that the name ‘Crush” stems from the romantic crush that people often have for one another and his and Rutgers’ new bar is aimed at providing a friendly space for people to meet and socialize. 

“We’re looking to be inclusive to everyone,” Rutstein said. “It’s certainly going to be heavy on the LGBT community” because he and Rutgers have been part of that community for many years. But he added, “We want to be inclusive to gays and lesbians being able to bring their friends and allies in along with them and not feel weird about it.” 

Crush will be located across the street from the Reeves Center D.C. municipal building where government agencies and community groups, including the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community, has its office. 

“Crush isn’t just our name,” the statement issued by Rutstein and Rutgers says. “It’s the essence of our space. We aim to create an atmosphere where everyone can celebrate life and love.”

Editor’s note: Stephen Rutgers is the Blade’s Director of Sales and Marketing.

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District of Columbia

Capital Stonewall Democrats host forum on proposed ranked choice voting, open primaries

Initiative 83 supporters, opponents attended event at Shakers

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Vote No On Initiative 83 leader Deirdre Brown, front left, joins pro-Initiative 83 leader Phil Pannell, front right, in a friendly toast following their sometimes-heated debate over the proposed D.C. ballot measure hosted by the LGBTQ group Capital Stonewall Democrats and held at the gay bar Shakers. Standing behind Brown and Pannell are Capital Stonewall Dems President Mike Haresign, at left, the group’s vice president, Monica Nemeth, and secretary, Howard Garrett Jr. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

The Capital Stonewall Democrats, one of D.C.’s oldest LGBTQ political organizations, hosted a forum on on Monday night, Feb. 19, on the proposed D.C. ballot measure known as Initiative 83, which calls for the city to put in place a ranked choice voting system and for party primaries to be open to all registered voters regardless of their party affiliation, including independent voters.

The forum included presentations by one of the leading supporters and a leading opponent of the controversial initiative. Longtime D.C. LGBTQ rights and Ward 8 community activist Phil Pannell, who serves as treasurer of Make All Votes Count DC, the lead organization advocating for Initiative 83, spoke on behalf of the initiative.

Deirdre Brown, who identified herself as a longtime Ward 3 Democratic Party member and LGBTQ community ally, spoke on behalf of Vote No on Initiative 83, the lead group opposing the initiative. 

Brown pointed out that her organization was separate and distinct from the D.C. Democratic Party, which also opposes Initiative 83 and has filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court to prevent the measure from being placed on the ballot. A judge was expected to hand down a ruling on whether the lawsuit should be dismissed or continue at a Feb. 23 hearing. 

Capital Stonewall Democrats President Michael Haresign, who introduced both speakers, told the Washington Blade after the event, which was held at the D.C. gay bar Shakers, that the LGBTQ Democratic group may not take an official position on Initiative 83. He said that if it does take a position, it would not do so until later this year if the initiative is approved for placement on the ballot in the city’s November election. 

An informal survey of local LGBTQ activists conducted by the Blade shows the LGBTQ community appears divided over Initiative 83, with prominent activists emerging as both supporters and opponents of the measure.

In his presentation in support of Initiative 83, Pannell called ranked choice voting an important electoral reform that has worked successfully in many states and cities across the country. He noted that ranked choice voting serves as an instant, automatic runoff election if no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote in a primary or general election. 

As proposed, Initiative 83 would allow voters to rank candidates running for office in order of their preference. Under this system, if no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote during the initial ballot counting process, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated. 

The votes cast by voters who picked that candidate as their top choice would then go to their second-choice candidate. This process would continue, under the ranked choice system, until at least one candidate emerges with at least 50 percent of the votes and is declared the winner.

The second part of Initiative 83 would allow more than 80,000 D.C. residents who currently choose not to register as a member of one of the local political parties and who are not allowed to vote in a primary, to vote in the city’s primary elections, including the Democratic primary. Political observers point out that the Democratic primary usually decides who will win the general election in D.C, where registered voters overwhelmingly elect Democratic candidates to public office. 

“In terms of ranked choice voting, it’s very basic,” Pannell told the gathering. “You have to start with , do you believe people who are elected should have a simple majority of the vote? If you don’t believe that, I’m not going to be able to convince you,” he said. 

Pannell pointed out that in recent D.C. elections, under the city’s public campaign finance law, as many as 20 candidates have run for both at-large and ward seats on the DC Council, with some of them winning with just 30 percent or even a little over 20 percent of the vote. 

Calling himself a lifelong, loyal member of the Democratic Party, Pannell criticized party leaders for opposing what he calls broadening the democratic process by allowing all residents to vote in primaries, especially independents, and for opposing a ranked choice voting system that Pannell said also broadens the electoral consensus by requiring that a candidate receive at least 50 percent of the vote to win an election.

“Initiative 83 will make politics more inclusive, less divisive,” he told the forum. “Let’s embrace it. Closed primaries are the result of closed hearts and closed minds,” he said. “Let’s open the windows and the doors … Let’s change our party for the better and vote for Initiative 83.”

Brown, who also described herself as a loyal Democratic Party member from Ward 3 and a native Washingtonian, disputed arguments by Pannell and his colleagues in support of Initiative 83, saying the democratic process is alive and well under the current D.C. electoral system and backers of Initiative 83 are waging a “propaganda campaign” to confuse voters.

Among other things, she said it’s not an infringement of democracy by requiring people to register for a party to vote in a party primary. All they need to do is register under D.C.’s rapid registration system, vote in a primary, and then withdraw their registration at any time. She also said independent voters, who Initiative 83 supporters say have a right to vote in primaries, often do not agree with the principles of the Democratic Party.

“And normally independents will tell you I’m independent because I don’t believe in Democratic Party values. I don’t believe in Republican Party values. I don’t believe in statehood values,” she told the gathering. “So, the question becomes, is it okay for people who don’t share your values to pick your leaders? There is no other club or organization that allows people who are not members to pick their leaders. It’s just that simple,” she said.

“That’s not disenfranchising you,” Brown added. “You just have to choose whether you want to work within a party to promote their values and issues or not. And if you don’t, that’s okay, that’s your choice. But you just then don’t get to vote until we get to the general election.”

Regarding ranked choice voting, Brown cited studies conducted by independent research organizations, including universities, that she said show it “marginalizes black and brown voters,” voters in low-income neighborhoods, and voters whose native language is not English, many of whom, she said, become confused by the ranked choice voting system. 

She also disputed claims by ranked choice voting supporters that citizens already participate in a ranked choice system in everyday life, including D.C.’s ranked choice public school lottery system, and public housing system and a ranked choice voting system will be similarly easy to understand.

Brown pointed out that unlike the school lottery or public housing system, where making a mistake will not result in serious consequences, ranked choice voting usually doesn’t accommodate people who fill out the ballot incorrectly.

“If you make a mistake if you undervote, overvote, your ballot is thrown out,” she said.

Brown concluded by pointing out that financial reports filed by supporters of Initiative 83 filed with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance shows large sums of money backing the initiative are coming from out of state Political Action Committees or PACS as well as large corporations. 

During a rebuttal period, Pannell pointed to other studies he said show that minority voters, especially African American voters, do not have a problem with ranked choice voting, calling it an insult to say Black people and other minorities who would not adopt to ranked choice voting. 

He said Brown’s suggestion that there was something wrong with out of state organizations contributing money to a political cause was unfair and baseless.

“I’m the treasurer of this campaign,” he said. “And anyone who knows me knows that  I will not play tricks and trash with any political cash,” he told the forum. “And this is in the same way that we in the LGBTQ community had to get donations from outside the city when we were fighting for our rights,” Pannell said. “There is nothing wrong with getting donations from outside of D.C. Candidates do it all the time.”

Pannell drew objections from Brown and other Initiative 83 supporters at the Capital Stonewall Democrats forum when he added, “If we’re going to talk about donations, check out the donations going to the Vote No On 83 committee. And you will see that two of the most virulent opponents of marriage equality are contributors to that committee.”

Brown replied that she and others involved in the No On 83 campaign are not aware of all the political views of the hundreds of mostly small donors who contribute to their committee. She said an examination of the donors for the Make All Votes Count DC committee might also find some who at one time expressed opposition to LGBTQ rights. 

One person who attended the forum, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said they believed the two individuals Pannell was referring to, who Pannell said were officials with the D.C. Democratic State Committee, supported holding a voter referendum to decide on whether same-sex marriage should be legalized in D.C. The source said the two did not specifically oppose same-sex marriage but wanted the voters to decide the issue rather than the D.C. Council. 

As it turned out, the DC Board of Elections rejected the matter as a voter referendum on grounds that the D.C. Home Rule Charter bans voter initiatives or referendums that could lead to discrimination against minority groups, including LGBTQ people. Opponents of same-sex marriage appealed the election board’s decision to the courts and lost in a final ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld a lower D.C. court ruling agreeing with the election board’s decision. 

After Pannell and Brown concluded their remarks, Haresign opened the forum to questions from those attending the meeting in person as well as those watching on the organization’s Facebook page. The questioners who expressed their own views on Initiative 83 appeared to be divided evenly among the measure’s supporters and opponents. 

“I think the forum went well,” Haresign told the Blade. “We were able to get a high level of information,” he said. 

“If we were to take a position it would be after everything is certified and we have a full membership vote,” Haresign said, referring to Initiative 83 being certified by the Board of Elections to be on the ballot in November. 

Under D.C. election rules, the board’s certification would come after the lawsuit is dismissed or settled and after Initiative 83 supporters obtain the required number of petition signatures to place the measure on the ballot.  

Pannell urged Capital Stonewall Democrats members and others in the LGBTQ community to sign the petition to get the measure on the ballot, even if they don’t support it, saying voters should be given the right to decide the issue.

Brown disagreed, saying “I’m asking you if you believe in I-83, then go ahead and sign the petition. But if you do not, I’m asking you not to sign the petition.”

The video recording of the Capital Stonewall Democrats forum can be accessed here:

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