Some students requested their full names not be used.
When Represent writer and Queens College student Marcus Diego heard that he and other foster youth were going to be kicked out of their dorms with two days’ notice and unsure about where they would go, he made sure the world knew about it. They are all students in the Dorm Project, a program run by New York Foundling, ACS, and New Yorkers for Children that provides foster youth who attend CUNYs year-round dorm rooms.
According to Marcus, on Monday March 23, the Dorm Project students were sent a survey asking if they had another place to live. Marcus filled out the blank that said “Nowhere to go.” When he asked why he got the survey, he was assured in an email from Shadira Hooks, supervisor of the Dorm Project at Queens College, that, “Nobody has to leave.”
The next day, Tuesday, the students in the Queens College Dorm, the Summit, got an email saying that the CUNY Residence Halls were closing, and all students were expected to be out by Thursday, March 26, at 5pm. It added, “The Dorm Project is working diligently with your agencies to ensure you all have a place to stay…and no one will be without a living space.”
As the need for hospital beds in New York City skyrocketed due to the spread of COVID-19, Governor Andrew Cuomo decided to make CUNY dorms into temporary hospitals. Rumors flew that the Queens College dorms would be made into a hospital, or even half-dorm, half-hospital.
Marcus found out later that international CUNY students and Dorm Project students from other dorms in midtown Manhattan, Staten Island, and Harlem, would be moved to Queens College dorms, while those other dorms were repurposed into hospitals.
But nobody knew any of that on Tuesday, and the “you’re out” email was the first thing most students knew about the situation.
Youth Crying and Packing
Marcus called me on Tuesday and described the scene in the dorm. He said youth were crying and stuffing their belongings into garbage bags, even though they had no idea if and where they would be moving. He said, “The National Guard is here. Are they going to shoot us if we’re not out on Thursday?”
I passed his name and number on to journalists at The New York Times and The Chronicle of Social Change. Marcus provided them with information, other youths’ names and phone numbers, emails from the Dorm Project, and photos of kids’ packed bags. They were used in this article, and then a few days later, in this article. The Times also ran a short item on their live coronavirus feed.
Marcus provided all these facts and sources even as he faced homelessness during a pandemic.
“I don’t have any place to go! I don’t know what I’m going to do! Some agencies are saying they don’t want to come here unless they see proof that we’re kicked out because they’re afraid of getting the coronavirus.”
Marcus said some caseworkers were telling youth that they could go to a shelter.
Other youth were told to move to placements they didn’t want: brand new foster homes, with relatives whose homes were chaotic, or to crash on a friend’s couch.
D., 21, said, “My social worker asked me if I had a place to go, and I said, I could go to my friend’s house and stay with her and our other friend. But that’s three people in one bed.”
She added, “I filled out the survey some hours before they sent the notice that we had to leave. And I clicked the option ‘I do not have anywhere to go.’ Then I got the notice and was like, ‘What was the point of the survey?’”
Brianna, 19 said, “My case planner told me my options were my mom, my aunt, or a homeless shelter.”
Diavion, 18, said she was told she had to go to a foster home she knew nothing about. “If I move, I have to put my stuff in storage, and storage is only free for a month.” She refused to open the door, despite being threatened with arrest by someone from her agency, Lutheran Social Services, and the public safety officer from the Queens dorm, she said.
Over the next few days, some students were taken to new placements. Marcus found out Thursday morning that he would be allowed to stay in the dorm after all. But he continued to keep tabs on his fellow students.
“I’m a youth advocate and a confidante for a lot of kids, and I’m worried about them and about me.”
The pressure seemed to help. On Thursday and Friday, Marcus told me, “They called about 11 people back to Queens College from their new placements, including some 21 and under who had nowhere to go.”
Students 21 and older were given higher priority because they aren’t technically still in care and can’t be put into foster homes or group homes. Diavion, who refused to open the door, was allowed to stay.
Several students said the upheaval was “retraumatizing.” Marcus said, “One kid who left here told me that a new foster mother sprayed her with alcohol, including in her face. The kid’s caseworker told her not to complain, saying, ‘Look, she’s sweet to take you in.’”
Fellow Queens College and Dorm Project resident Alex Jimenez called his New York City Council member, who told City Council Member Stephen Levin what was happening.
Levin, who is chair of the committee that oversees child welfare in New York City, seemed as shocked as the students to hear this news. He tweeted on Thursday, linking to the Chronicle of Social Change story:
We need immediate answers @ACSNYC @NYCMayor.
Why are foster youth being forced out of dorms into potentially unsafe or unstable housing during this pandemic?
Youth deserve to stay where is safest for them. Housing is a human right for all.
Marcus laughed, “I heard that ACS doesn’t want me and Alex talking any more because we’re contacting the New York Times and elected officials. Shadira Hooks is mad. I heard her asking a CSC, ‘How does Diego know everything?’”
How does he?
“I have my sources at the Dorm Project and CUNY. The Dorm Project, ACS, and CUNY are all trying to blame people lower down. The College Success Coaches aren’t in the loop. CUNY workers are not in the loop. The higher-ups know what’s going on. ACS is blaming the agencies’ social workers, but the workers who were coming to pick up the kids were saying they didn’t know.”
Marcus’s account of CUNY, ACS, and the state blaming each other was confirmed by officials who went on the record Friday. Julie Farber, the ACS deputy commissioner who oversees foster care, told the Chronicle of Social Change, “CUNY made the decision to close all of its dorms this week and set a very short window to implement this, once the governor decided that it was critical to turn CUNY into a medical facility to help save the lives of New Yorkers.”
Returned to the Dorm
I checked in with Marcus on Sunday, March 29. He told me that some of the students who’d been sent to new placements against their will were returned to the dorms over the weekend.
“I hear that CUNY agreed that our dorm would not be converted into a hospital, and that the 500 beds were for the kids.”
Marcus had been moved to a different room and people were cleaning the dorms all weekend.
“I got new roommates from City College. They got a two-day notice too, but theirs said they’d be moving to the dorms in Queens, not just that they were out, like we got.”
Marcus added that nobody explained to the dorm residents how to stay safe during this crisis.
“Kids are staying six feet apart, but we never got specific guidance from staff about washing our hands for 20 seconds. We all have to get our own soap from the drugstore. I asked if we could get gloves and masks, and Ebony [Smalls, Assistant VP of the Dorm Project], told me, ‘We don’t have the funds for that.’”
Marcus also forwarded an email to youth that he got on Sunday morning from the Dorm Project assuring them that they would continue to get their monthly stipend, College Success Coach and tutoring sessions (remotely), and their laptops. The email ends, “As always we are here for you!!! The Dorm Project Team.”
Marcus doesn’t think any of his dormmates ended up homeless over the past week, though he can’t be sure about all of them.
“I’m mentally exhausted worrying about all these kids being in places where they could get infected.” Those who were allowed to stay may be there because of Marcus. “You don’t mess with this foster kid,” he said, “I will speak up.”
Marcus’s advocacy continues with this Daily News story, published on April 6, 2020.