Andy Newman and Emma G Fitzsimmons
The New York Times
New York City’s social services commissioner is being investigated over his handling of cases where homeless families had to stay overnight at a Bronx intake office while applying for shelter last month, two people with knowledge of the inquiry said on Monday.
The overnight stays at the office violated the city’s right-to-shelter law and came as officials scrambled to cope with a surge in families entering the system, many of them newly arrived migrants and asylum seekers from the nation’s southern border.
The inquiry, which is being conducted by the city’s Department of Investigation, involves allegations that the social services commissioner, Gary Jenkins, sought to conceal that people had slept at the intake office, according to a former top official with the city Department of Homeless Services and another person with knowledge of the investigation.
A spokeswoman for the Social Services Department who was fired on Aug. 5, Julia Savel, was interviewed for three hours on Monday by officials from the Investigation Department, one of the people said. A reporter for The New York Times saw Ms. Savel leaving the office building on Maiden Lane in the financial district where the Investigation Department is based.
NBC New York reported last week that Ms. Savel was terminated after she challenged Mr. Jenkins’s handling of the overnight stays. NBC New York also reported on the investigation involving Mr. Jenkins.
On July 20, as word of the violations spread, Ms. Savel, in a message quoted by NBC New York, texted a colleague who works in the mayor’s press office that Mr. Jenkins “was trying to not tell City Hall that we broke the law.”
She also wrote: “I just can’t work for a commish who is ok with covering up something illegal.”
On Friday, Mayor Eric Adams defended Mr. Jenkins and said Ms. Savel had not been fired because of her “communication.” Mr. Adams declined to offer further details.
On Monday at a news conference, Mr. Adams said he had the “utmost confidence” in Mr. Jenkins and said that there had been “no attempt” to cover up anything.
The Investigation Department would not officially confirm the inquiry on Friday, stating about the allegations against Mr. Jenkins only that “D.O.I. is aware of the matter and declines further comment.”
Much about the overnight stays at the intake office, during which people slept on the floor and in chairs, is murky and in dispute, but this much is clear: From the late hours of July 17 into the next morning, several families spent the night there.
Text messages from Mr. Jenkins to Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom show that he told her on the morning of July 18 that people had stayed overnight at the intake center and that he understood that this should not have happened.
“It’s getting rough” at the intake shelter, Mr. Jenkins wrote in one message. (The messages were provided to The New York Times by a person familiar with the city’s efforts to house the families at the intake office.)
Under a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society, the city shelter system must list in a public “daily report” whenever a family applying for shelter ends up staying overnight at the intake office rather than being brought to a temporary shelter.
The city did not list the overnight stays in that day’s report. The Legal Aid Society said that it learned about them a day later, on July 19, from an NBC New York reporter, and that it then confronted city officials.
City officials assert that it was they who proactively reached out to the society on July 19, not the other way around, to notify them about the overnight stays.
The city also denies the accounts of several families who said they spent multiple nights at the intake office last month.
In testimony before the City Council last week, a lawyer for the New York Legal Assistance Group said that her clients included another family who stayed at the intake center for two nights, along with an additional family from Venezuela who stayed at the intake center for four nights.
The city maintains that people stayed at the intake center only on the night of July 17, and that four families did so.
On July 20, the Legal Aid Society accused the city of “efforts to hide the needless trauma being inflicted on these vulnerable families.”
According to the law, people who arrive at the intake office before 10 p.m. must be placed in a shelter by 4 a.m. But migrants and advocates have said that long lines to get into the office caused some people who arrived in the evening to miss the 10 p.m. cutoff, so they were not counted as people who were required to be housed that night. Mr. Jenkins said at the City Council hearing last week that it was possible that people waiting for placement who did arrive before 10 p.m. “may close their eyes” while waiting.
A spokesman for Mr. Adams, Fabien Levy, said that the reason the city did not initially report the overnight stays on the night of July 17 was because neither Mr. Jenkins nor Ms. Williams-Isom was aware of the legal requirement at the time, not because they were trying to hide something.
Mr. Levy said Ms. Savel’s texts were misleading and were those of a “junior staffer” who was “not privy to conversations between our leadership teams.”
Mr. Jenkins has worked at the Social Services Department since at least 2000. Joslyn Carter, who leads the Homeless Services Department and who reports to Mr. Jenkins, is a former director of the intake center where the people stayed overnight.
The former top homeless services official who knew of the investigation said that the city’s claim that Mr. Jenkins did not know overnight stays have to be reported was not credible.
The person said that as soon as they started at the department, they were told that if anyone spends the night at the family intake center, the city was obligated to inform the Legal Aid Society.
Originally published in The New York Times on August 15, 2022.