Near the end of his 19th year, when Marcus Diego rose up from life in 14 different foster homes and landed in the Summit Apartments at Queens College, he sang like he’d never sung before: “Through my lungs. Like, I’m free.”
His fully furnished room looked out over neat, grassy lawns with excellent sunset views. “Experience the best of student housing,” the campus ad for modern dorm living had pronounced. For down time in between classes there were pianos, pool and PingPong, welcoming student players with bright, multi-colored carpeting.
Diego missed his grandma back in Brooklyn, but she encouraged him to go to college, and he wanted to study journalism, and make her proud. Through New York City’s Dorm Project, around 100 college students who grew up in foster care like Diego receive stipends, tutoring and year-round guaranteed housing.
That’s why it was so jarring on Tuesday when Diego and his peers woke up to a notice from Dorm Project administrators: They had to vacate the premises within 48 hours.
The CUNY system needed their beds for hospital patients, now overtaking New York City’s health care system, the epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic. By week’s end, more than 450 city residents had died from COVID-19, and the number of infected pushed toward 27,000 in an astoundingly quick surge.
After Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that “a number of CUNY sites,” were under consideration for backup hospital beds, Queens College interim president William Tramontano sent Summit Apartments residents an apology note. He explained that international students and others would need space in the building they had expected to occupy through the end of the school year.
But for the foster youth with limited family connections, there are few other housing options, if any. Often the housing they can find in a rush is temporary at best — and dangerous at worst.
“Foster youth are being treated as an afterthought in this situation, and it is unacceptable,” said Stephen Levin, a Brooklyn city councilman who chairs the General Welfare Committee that oversees foster care. Levin said he believes the city child welfare agency has worked to move some of the college students into alternative housing, but he has “grave concerns” about where they have ended up.*
“Being moved into a foster home with little to no connection during a pandemic, or to a family or friend’s house that consists of doubling up on a couch, or an unstable living situation, can add significant trauma to a young person’s life. They deserve so much better.”
A national poll of 18- to 24-year-old current and former foster youth published this week by the network FosterClub suggested the problem exists beyond New York. “This crisis has forced me back to a very toxic and triggering environment,” a 22-year-old former foster youth in Massachusetts told pollsters.
Dorm Project students who had been living at three sites citywide now face three possible outcomes, according to Bill Baccaglini, president and CEO of New York Foundling. Roughly 20 to 25 foster youth who child welfare authorities determine to be otherwise headed for homelessness, will be allowed to stay in a Queens College dorm. Roughly 45 to 50 who maintained their foster care status for college will now return to group homes or foster parents’ homes, some of them strangers. But those numbers were still fluid late Friday, as some students’ destinations continued to shift.
Another roughly 50 students – most of whom have aged out of foster care — are being assisted by the Administration for Children’s Services to find “the homes of relatives/close friends,” according to a Friday statement.
Despite weeks of contingency planning by Children’s Services, for at least one young person who texted The Chronicle of Social Change last night, that meant sleeping on a friend’s couch this weekend. The setup might not be sustainable, and she’s seeking legal help.
“College students in foster care face unique circumstances — many just do not have another home to go to when their dorm room, which is essentially their home, must close,” said Karen Freedman, founder and executive director of Lawyers for Children, in an emailed statement. “These young people have experienced a tremendous amount of trauma and instability, this is certainly an additional burden they should not have to endure.”
Baccaglini said once shelter is resolved, his other major concern is making sure students don’t veer off their educational tracks.
“These kids have been asked to do stuff I would not have been able to survive like they have,” he said. “What will keep me up at night is if they say ‘the system did it to me again, I’m out of here.’ It really worries me. Next semester we’ll try our best to make this whole again.”
On Friday late afternoon, it was still hard to get clarity on who made the call to boot the foster youth so that international students – who themselves had been uprooted by hospital patients – could take their rooms.
The myriad agencies and officials involved in the pandemic housing crisis continued to point fingers at each other through the end of the week. CUNY again insisted all students who were “unable to go home” are being offered placements in dorms.
The governor’s office did not respond to emailed questions Friday, but Queens Councilman Rory Lancman said the city Administration for Children’s Services had responsibility to find the young people safe homes. “ACS shouldn’t pass the buck to the governor,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s ACS’ responsibility to find placements for these young people, not the governor’s.”
Julie Farber, the Children’s Services deputy commissioner who oversees foster care, emailed through a spokesperson. She flipped the blame, stating: “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.”
For Diego and other former foster youth, the uprooting was all too familiar.
“This kind of thing had happened before to all of us, with no warning,” he said.
In his case, he couldn’t go back to his grandmother’s house: “She’s an elderly woman, and COVID-19 could affect her.”
But he and his friends had one consolation. They had not quietly packed their bags and slouched off campus. Nearly two dozen students mounted a 36-hour campaign pleading their case to remain on campus to whoever they could reach: reporters, politicians, CUNY authorities and officials with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.
The effort worked for at least a few. As of Friday, Diego and roughly 20 others had been told they could stay at his dorm complex, sheltered in place.
One 18-year-old who locked herself in her dorm room Thursday, who requested not to be identified, described a terrifying week.
“I am not a problematic person. I am not being defiant or not willing to comply, I am self-advocating,” she told The Chronicle, as public safety officers hovered near her dorm room. She had already spoken with Administration for Children’s Services officials, and got impromptu assistance from the Legal Aid Society. Still locked in her room at 7 p.m. last night, she was finally told she didn’t have to return to a foster care placement she felt was dangerous. She could stay in Queens — for now.
“This is the only break I have today, and yes, I have concerns,” she texted. “It depends on how bad the virus gets to determine what happens next.”
*Update 3/27/2020: This post has been updated with comment from New York City councilmember Stephen Levin.
Michael Fitzgerald is New York editor for The Chronicle of Social Change, and can be reached at email@example.com.