Foster youth in NYC’s Dorm Project lost their housing last year. More than half are still not back on campus.
Nearly six months after getting a sudden and unceremonious boot from their dorms during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, more than half of the 114 college students in New York City’s Dorm Project for foster youth have begun a new school year without the guarantee of housing on campuses across the city.
Only one of the three previous Dorm Project housing sites, in Queens, is welcoming back students, according to the nonprofit New York Foundling and officials with the Administration for Children’s Services and the City University of New York system.
Sheniqua Roberts, a student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, criticized those responsible for the program who failed to deliver on its central promise.
“They are too relaxed in how they deal with students’ lives,” Roberts said.
While she waits for a dorm room to become available, Roberts has had to delay her educational goals and is participating in her classes virtually while staying in Texas.
Along with her current and former foster youth peers, the liberal arts student was notified in late March she had 48 hours to vacate her Harlem dorm, which was needed for the National Guard. This semester, Roberts had been planning to complete her bachelor’s degree at another CUNY school in Manhattan, Hunter College, but she put the transfer on hold and is instead continuing to work toward a two-year degree remotely this semester.
Frank Sobrino, a CUNY spokesperson, said the university system and city officials were “in regular communication” about students with housing needs. But he declined to explain why all Dorm Project students were not allowed back to their campus housing, even with new coronavirus cases growing by less than 1% each day and dorms citywide welcoming back some students.
Sobrino also noted that all foster youth in the city’s colleges, whether currently housed at a CUNY dorm or elsewhere, continue receiving daily stipends, coaching, tutoring and career counseling from New York Foundling, the nonprofit assisting them.
Since 2016, the Dorm Project’s on-campus guarantee was meant to help prevent the housing instability that often derails current and former foster youth in college. Through an arrangement with the City University of New York system, students had been housed in complexes near John Jay College in midtown Manhattan, and near City College in Harlem, in addition to the Queens site.
In late March, students like Roberts received the email order to vacate within two days. The abrupt change sparked a panic as youth and foster care agencies scrambled to make other arrangements. Many students did not have family homes to return to.
Since then, as of this month, just 52 of the Dorm Project’s 114 students have been provided campus housing in Queens. Students who could not return to family or move in with friends were sent to foster families or group homes. Others moved to public housing or received vouchers for apartments.
Three students interviewed this month said they remain hopeful and motivated about their education, but deflated by ongoing uncertainty about housing, and by feeling unheard and overlooked by the institutions tasked with supporting them.
For students who had previously been removed from their homes for foster care, the chaotic late-March move was familiar, but they expected more support and communication as the new school year approached.
“It was radio silence for a while. Students became extremely depressed, myself included,” Roberts said.
Gabbie Rodriguez, 23, a senior at City College, wants to see the Dorm Project improve for the foster youth who come after her. She’s been in the program since it launched, and is now living with her partner’s parents since being forced out of her dorm.
“I believe in this program, I believe in the things that it can be, and I’m thinking about the youth that are gonna come after me, not so much my own experience,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a real sense of urgency to keep students up-to-date with program changes, or even if they just say ‘we’re working on it,’ but there’s no sense of that.”
City officials, meanwhile, pledge to communicate about housing needs for Dorm Project students. “Our top priority for youth in foster care is that they are safe and supported,” said Marisa Kaufman, spokesperson for Children’s Services, in email, adding that the program has added a career counseling component to the Dorm Project, in addition to tutoring, coaching, and other supports it already provides. “ACS, CUNY and the New York Foundling will continue to work closely to ensure these students have the support they need to succeed in their college career.”