A Year in the Dorm Project

Ericka tries the New York City program the Dorm Project for a year. She experiences sexual harassment, verbal abuse, identity theft, and other affronts. She likes her tutor but not living in the dorm.

by Ericka Francois

The Dorm Project is a three-year-old program that lets New York City foster youth stay in dorms year-round. Before I moved into a dorm as part of the Dorm Project, in January of my sophomore year, I lived at home for a semester and a half while I went to LaGuardia Community College in Queens. I had the opportunity to dorm at Queens College, an hour away from LaGuardia, and I took it. I looked forward to the independence, relationships, and diverse experiences of living in a dorm. I appreciated that the Dorm Project offered tutors and College Success Coaches (CSCs) to foster youth.

I met with my CSC every week to discuss personal and academic issues. Every foster youth in the Dorm Project gets a CSC to help keep us on the right track—mentally, emotionally, and physically. I switched CSCs a couple of times, and my last one, Ashley, was very nice. I trusted her and her guidance.

I was placed with two young men in a suite. I shared a room with a girl, and the two boys shared a room on the other side of the suite. We all shared a kitchen and living room area.

From age 11 on, I grew up in kinship care with my grandmother, so I had never experienced group homes, residential treatment centers (RTCs), or even foster homes. Perhaps if I had lived with other foster youth, I’d have been better prepared for the conflicts that followed.

I had trouble with all three of my suitemates. My female roommate would have her boyfriend spend the night without consulting me. They’d have sex in the room while I waited somewhere else. My male suitemates often hosted two other guys I was uncomfortable with. One of those visitors called me a “b-tch”; another made crude remarks about my body.

My possessions weren’t safe. My suitemates or their guests ate my food and stole a watch, a ring, a hat, and other possessions. Someone in the suite opened up a credit card under my name, and I’m still trying to get my credit cleared up.

I didn’t want to snitch. I did tell my CSC about these things but she felt more like a therapist than an authority figure. She wasn’t able to do anything, as far as I could tell.

One of my male suitemates shoved me in the chest, and the other sexually harassed me. That’s when I reached out to other CSCs and the director of the Dorm Project. They all told me they were setting up a meeting about my complaints that would include staff from my agency, Queens College, and the Dorm Project.

I emailed with various staff 19 times in the first weeks of July, but the meeting never took place. I also contacted someone from ACS in July. They told me there were no rooms available, so I couldn’t just move out.

I felt like the CSCs didn’t have enough control over the youth. I watched youth speak to CSCs any way they wanted and do whatever they wanted. I reported all of it, but those who harmed me were not punished or stopped. Finally, after more than seven months of feeling scared, I was moved into my own room.

I dormed at Queens College for a year and graduated from LaGuardia with an Associate Degree. I transferred to SUNY New Paltz. During the holidays, I went to my grandmother’s. I lost the $930 monthly stipend from the Dorm Project and the awesome tutors and my CSC Ashley. What I gained was my mental health.

I wish the Dorm Project had disciplined the students more. Yes, every foster youth deserves a chance, but you can’t put other youth in danger because of that. Youth who were breaking the rules and harming other students weren’t removed or, as far as I know, even disciplined.

Still, I had amazing tutors at the Dorm Project and eventually a CSC who I really liked. I still keep in contact with my tutor, and he is helping me research graduate schools.

The New York Foundling declined to comment on Ericka’s story. They do not release student names of identifying information “as a matter of policy and privacy.”

Perhaps if I had lived with other foster youth, I'd have been better prepared for the conflicts that followed.
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