Dorm Evictions for the Public Good

Colleges are clearing out student dorms to make room for patients and health-care workers as the coronavirus pandemic overwhelms hospitals. The process has not gone smoothly for students.

April 8, 2020
 
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When students who'd evacuated their dorm rooms at Virginia Commonwealth University discovered personal belongings they'd left behind were being packed and removed from their rooms to accommodate non-COVID-19 hospital patients, it was through a video on social media.

The video posted on Facebook by a moving company employee on March 25 showed movers going into the rooms and preparing to clear them. The response from surprised students was immediate.

"I want an answer as to why y'all are literally stealing my stuff right now," one student tweeted at the university.

After being told to leave campus and retrieve belongings by March 22 in the wake of the coronavirus public health crisis, the students were angered to learn that strangers would be going through and packing up their stuff.

They replied to the video, which now has more than 110,000 views on Twitter, and demanded answers from VCU. The university posted an apology the next morning in a tweet, explaining that the Honors College residence hall was being converted into a potential hospital for overflow patients from the university's hospital to make room for people with COVID-19.

"There are many moving parts to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic," Michael Porter, associate vice president for public affairs, wrote in an email.​ "VCU and the VCU Health System have worked closely with state and local officials to prepare for an expected surge in patients that could exceed the total capacity at the VCU Medical Center … We apologized to the affected students. And while they expressed disappointment at the lack of advance notice, many students also offered feedback acknowledging their support of VCU's role in helping our community during this unprecedented public health emergency.​"

While VCU’s hired contractor began packing items in dorms before telling students, “nothing was moved until after students were notified,” Porter said.

As colleges are being asked to provide residence hall space for patients, health-care workers, or first responders, students who live in campus residence halls are being told belongings will be boxed, moved and stored at private off-campus facilities. Affected students say notifications about these processes has been inadequate, and plans do not account for the needs of students who live far from their campus or in other states or those unable to afford the cost of having their belongings shipped to them.

Some commenters on social media urged VCU students to think less about their “mini fridges” and more about the people suffering with illness or risking their lives to care for others in the deadly pandemic. But the idea that dorms were being cleared out wasn’t what upset students, it was the lack of communication about how personal items were going to be handled and removed, said Kaylin Cecchini, a senior political science student at VCU who wrote an opinion article about the situation for RVA Magazine, a Richmond, Va., publication. Students were given limited or no time to return to campus to retrieve belongings because of the various travel restrictions issued by states.

“They’re dedicating their space to health-care needs -- that’s not the criticism,” said Cecchini, who did not live in the dorm that will be used for patients. “The problem wasn’t about the property, it was about, ‘why is my property being moved in a viral video.’”

George Washington University students were under the impression they would be returning to the Washington, D.C., campus in early April after two weeks of online classes and left many belongings behind, said Amelia Larkin, a junior. Once the university announced it would continue remote instruction for the remainder of the semester, students on break were encouraged to abide by social distancing recommendations from public health officials and told not to come to campus to get their belongings and formally move out.

“They told us not to come back to campus, but that was before the whole country shut down,” said Larkin, who's now living back home near Boston. “There was time for us to go feasibly get our things, and they weren’t open to that.”

George Washington later told students in an email that private moving companies would pack up and store their belongings. “Non-essential” items will be stored in a facility until the fall semester, and if students want to retrieve belongings before then, they "may have options to pay" to have them shipped to them, the university said in a message to students on April 6.

The University of Virginia, which plans to use five residence halls closest to the UVA Medical Center for hospital personnel and first responders, has a similar process. Students' belongings will be stored and inaccessible until the state lifts its stay-at-home order that is in place until June  10, Allen Groves, dean of students, wrote in a series of tweets on April 5.

UVA students who want to retrieve items from the storage site before the order is lifted will be charged $65 to $100. There was some confusion over initial messages from the university that implied students would also have to pay to retrieve items after the order is lifted, said Ellie Brasacchio, a senior whose term as Student Council president ended this semester. There was also a cost for shipping items to students, she said. Several students, including Brasacchio, who does not live in one of the affected residence halls, attempted to move out weeks ago, but the office of housing and residential life had changed locks and access codes to the buildings, she said.

Gay Perez, UVA's assistant vice president of student affairs, explained in an email to students on April 6 that the university has "an obligation to do what we can to assist in combating the spread of COVID-19."  A university spokesman noted that only 600 of the 6,500 undergraduates that live on campus will be affected by the policy. There are 33 residential buildings in all on the Charlottesville campus.   

“This is a difficult time for everyone, and nothing about it is normal” he said “Each of us is being confronted with circumstances and alternatives that are less than optimal, and not at all as we would have desired. We hope you understand that we are committed to meeting current circumstances in ways that are designed to keep you, the UVA community, and the greater Charlottesville community safe.”

Said Brasacchio: “I understand why they don’t want students coming back and infecting people. I think students understand that they need to move stuff out to make space for workers. The issue is the lack of clear communication and paying to get stuff out.”

Larkin said she left belongings in her dorm at George Washington that she will need for the foreseeable future -- textbooks for a spring class, professional attire for a summer job, an iPad and a custom-made bicycle she uses as a nationally ranked triathlete. It’s “frustrating” to have to leave behind items she didn’t anticipate needing, Larkin said. Private movers have been using FaceTime to call students who were roommates to determine what items in a single room or apartment belong to whom, Larkin said.

“First learning how to do online classes, being at home and studying, then to add this on top of it, there’s been a lot of anxiety,” Larkin said. “I’m fortunate enough that when it starts warming up, my parents will be able to buy me a new wardrobe. There are students who won’t be able to afford it … It’s those students who I really feel for.”

Larkin called it a “logistical nightmare.” George Washington anticipates having to clear the belongings of 5,000 to 6,000 students from residence halls to make living space for medical personnel who work at the university’s hospital, said Seth Weinshel, assistant dean of students, who oversees student housing. He said the university is working on mailing needed medications, academic materials and “high-value items” to students.

Weinshel said GW, like many other colleges and universities across the country, is balancing the safety and needs of students with those of its health-care workers, who will be housed in a residence hall one block away from the hospital to limit the risk of exposing their families to the coronavirus. He added that the university's response to the crisis has been evolving as recommended safety measures have changed.

“A good portion of this is, how do we go about keeping our students safe, and we’ve done that by keeping them away,” Weinshel said. “We get that students are upset and stressed and dealing with the ever-changing environment. We’re doing the best we can to care and support each other, and that is what we will continue to do as we go through this.”

The needs of students who live far from their colleges have gone by the wayside, said António Guia, a San Diego resident whose daughter is a junior at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Guia's daughter has had to coordinate with her roommate to go through items left in their dorm, and she has a friend who lives near the university who is willing to store her belongings over the summer. Each student who signed up for move-out was given a three-hour time slot to do so, which in the roommates' case, meant packing and moving twice the amount of stuff in this limited period, Guia said.

“Students have scheduled staggered move out appointments to ensure that residents and their helpers will be able to practice social distancing while moving belongings out,” Dory Devlin, senior director of university news and media relations for Rutgers wrote in an email. “Access to residence halls is available to individuals only during scheduled appointment times to ensure a move out that is orderly and as safe as possible.”

Devlin said the university is “accommodating students who cannot come to campus by storing their belongings for future retrieval.” This was news to Guia and his daughter, who said they contacted the Rutgers residence life office several times about possible alternatives to having to move stuff on their own and were not offered temporary storage.

“Rutgers has really dropped the ball on all the out-of-state and international students,” he said.

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