'Back to square one’: Coronavirus dorm closures at CUNY sends some students back to their foster homes

Marcus Diego on the campus of Queens College in Flushing.
Marcus Diego on the campus of Queens College in Flushing.

At age 20, she thought she’d put foster care behind her. Then coronavirus hit, CUNY classes were canceled and she was evicted from her university dormitory.
When she arrived at her new foster home, her foster mother, who is paid by the city to house her, doused her and her belongings with spray disinfectant.
It wasn’t malicious — the student and her foster mother get along — but the incident was a bitter reminder of why she yearned to leave the city’s foster system, which cares for people up to age 21.
“I’m so frustrated because I’m back to square one," the young woman said.
Marcus Diego's dorm at Queens College.
Marcus Diego's dorm at Queens College.(Courtesy Marcus Diego/for New York Daily News)
“You consistently have to worry about where you stand. Are you going to be in a stable home? Are you going to be in a home where they just want you for the money?”
The young woman — who asked the Daily News to withhold her name because of her situation — is among the foster youth thrust into uncertainty last week when CUNY ordered them out of their dorms.
Unlike their peers, these students have no childhood bedrooms to return to, and often no families who can help them through the shutdown of the economy or the closing of their colleges.
"Growing up in foster care, we don’t have family members like that,” said Marcus Diego, 22, a junior at Lehman College in the Bronx and former foster youth who was among the displaced students.
Marcus Diego on the campus of Queens College.
Marcus Diego on the campus of Queens College. (Gardiner Anderson/for New York Daily News)
Instead, the virus has put them back where they feel they don’t belong.
“A foster home is not somewhere to go,” said Diavion Senior, 18, who attends LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens. “I’m homeless … I’ve had a lot of traumatic experiences in foster homes."
Kerry Moles, executive director of CASA NYC, an organization that advocates for foster youth, called it “a scary time for everybody."
"But for somebody who’s had that instability in their lives, to be displaced again is really re-traumatizing to them,” Moles said.
The Dorm Project — run by New York Foundling, a private welfare agency — lets foster youth live in CUNY dorms year-round while attending college. The program’s 117 enrollees get tutoring, stipends and other help.
The students say some of the heartache could’ve been prevented with better planning from the institutions that care for them.

The scramble, first reported by The Chronicle of Social Change, began March 24, when CUNY officials sent an email saying that in order to relieve crowding and reserve open buildings for possible use as emergency hospitals, all students who could move out had to do so in two days.

The email said the Administration for Children’s Services was “actively working to determine alternative housing options for all Dorm Project students.”

Any student who did not “have a housing alternative" could move into a “consolidation” dorm in Queens, CUNY officials said. For some Dorm Project students, the “housing alternative” mentioned in the email turned out to be a foster home.

CUNY says it had room for all 117 Dorm Project students, and that ACS was in charge of deciding where those students should stay.

ACS officials, on the other hand, say they were following CUNY’s lead in moving out as many students as possible.

The confusion between CUNY and city bureaucrats resulted in about 30 Dorm Project students staying on at the consolidation dorm.

Some of the foster youth are confused about who got to stay, and why.

“I’m not sure who exactly had to leave,” said Senior. “Some people didn’t even put up a fight, they just left. Then there were some people that actually fought.”

Senior put up a fight. She barricaded herself in her dorm room March 26, refusing to leave even after a public safety officer came to the door.

Eventually, officials relented and let her stay, even though her social worker had a foster placement lined up, she said.

“I was just scared,” Senior said. “It’s not right for them to kick me out.”

Bill Baccaglini, the president of New York Foundling, said he believed only students without an “appropriate placement” were allowed to stay in the dorm. “I got the sense that ACS and the [foster care] agencies fairly applied that criteria," he said.

Baccaglini said he “fully understands” the frustration of students who have had to re-enter foster homes, and that the organization would help students move back into the dorms if space is available.

The 20-year-old woman never thought she’d end up back in foster care. She’s still expected to complete college courses online, and works five days a week in a retail job that’s now a much longer commute than it was from her dorm.

She’s also lost perhaps the most important feature of her life in the CUNY Dorm Project: the built-in network of friends right down the hall who intimately understood her experience.

"I left a home to gain my independence,” she said. “And for that to just be taken away in a matter of two days — that’s what really angers me.”

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