What to Know
- The New York City Department of Social Services fired Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Julia Savel last Friday, a source said
- Emails and texts obtained by News 4 indicate Savel had resisted efforts by Commissioner Gary Jenkins to conceal crowded conditions in the city's shelters from City Hall; Jenkins says he and senior staff were unaware that it was illegal to house families in the intake office
- A source says Savel was ultimately dressed down by the department's commissioner for telling City Hall about violations of legal agreements
The chief spokesperson for New York City's Department of Homeless Services was fired Friday after pushing back against alleged lies and omissions by her boss regarding illegal conditions in the city's homeless shelter system, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Email and text messages provided to the News 4 I-Team suggest that the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Julia Savel had resisted efforts by Social Services Commissioner Gary Jenkins to conceal crowded conditions in the city's homeless shelter system from his superiors at City Hall, from the media and from the public.
In one text message dated July 20, Savel indicated to a City Hall spokeswoman that she was planning to inquire about moving to a different agency, saying "Just can't work for a commish who is ok with covering up something illegal."
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Staff at the Department of Homeless Services say they learned on July 18 that families with children had been forced to stay overnight in the city's homeless intake office in the Bronx, known as PATH — a practice that is prohibited under a 2008 court settlement between the City and the Legal Aid Society, which represents people living in shelter.
The text messages imply that Savel gave City Hall a heads up the next day, on July 19. That same day, Mayor Adams announced NYC needed federal funding to help with a surge of 2,800 asylum seekers who had entered the shelter system in recent weeks. But the mayor did not specifically mention any legal violations or families sleeping in the intake office.
Later that week Adams said he did not learn the city had violated its "right to shelter mandate" until July 20.
Several sources tell News 4 that staff at the Department of Social Services, including the agency's legal team, were angry after being instructed to hold off on telling City Hall, and not promptly notify the Legal Aid Society, as has been past protocol.
City officials acknowledge there was a delay in disclosing the violations, but they say top officials at the Department of Social Services including the Commissioner were unaware that they are legally obligated not to house families overnight in their intake office. This, despite the fact that a report is sent out each morning at 4am to notify social services managers of any violations.
News 4 has repeatedly requested copies of those recent reports but the city has not provided them.
The mayor's office, in a statement, said the city continued to abide by both the letter and spirit of the law.
"Last month, we confirmed that we did not meet that mandate for a handful of families by the required time on one evening. Once we realized all of our legal obligations, we informed the proper parties. To make slanderous accusations when we have spent nearly three months providing shelter to almost 5,000 asylum seekers, in addition to thousands of other New Yorkers, who have entered our shelter system is not only disappointing but a slap in the face to the thousands of DSS employees who work diligently every day to support those most in need," mayoral spokesman Fabien Levy said in a statement.
Screenshots of text messages obtained by the I-Team suggest Savel disclosed the violation to the mayor's press office against Commissioner Jenkins' wishes.
"I was just told that I'm not allowed to tell city hall anything anymore," Savel wrote in a July 20 text message to Eric Adams' deputy press secretary, Kate Smart.
"Gary was trying to not tell city hall that we broke the law. I got yelled at for telling you. I've known since Monday."
The mayor's spokeswoman replied "Oy."
Savel declined to comment to News 4 on the contents of the messages. The city did not comment directly on Savel's termination or the cause. Some past co-workers have suggested she left prior jobs to mixed reviews, while others speak of her in the highest terms.
The situation at the intake center became public on July 20 after the News 4 I-Team interviewed Venezuelan migrant families who reported spending multiple overnights in the PATH office. When News 4 requested a response from DHS, there was an internal debate about whether to tell the truth, according to a source familiar with the discussions.
An internal email chain including senior agency staff, attorneys and spokespeople shows Jenkins suggested making an untrue statement, that "we are meeting our legal mandate to provide shelter."
According to a source familiar with the situation, Jenkins was told by his legal team that he may not lie about breaking the law.
The statement ultimately issued to News 4 several hours later by Savel was more truthful, saying the city had been "unable to immediately place four families by 4am as required by law."
City officials acknowledge there was a delay in disclosing the violations, but they say top officials at the Department of Social Services including the Commissioner were unaware that they are legally obligated not to house families overnight in their intake office. This, despite the fact that a report is sent out each morning at 4 a.m. to notify social services managers of any violations.
News 4 has repeatedly requested a copies of those recent reports but the city has not provided them.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services said that the city has a "legal and moral obligation" to provide shelter for all who require it, and "despite unprecedented challenges" the department will remain dedicated to meeting that mandate.
"As soon as we recognized the formidable pressures that were being placed on our shelter system that led to our inability to meet our mandate for only one night, we quickly worked to examine the situation on the ground to ensure that we were accurately reporting the facts to our stakeholders. We prioritize transparency and accountability in all that we do and continue to learn from every experience as part of a new administration," the spokesperson said. "We hope our government partners recognize our vital need for additional resources to expand capacity and help us in this critical effort to uphold the inclusive values we stand for as a nation.”
At a news conference on July 21, after News 4's report aired, Mayor Adams admitted they had violated the law for a small number of families, adding they violated the "letter of the law but not the spirit of the law."
When pressed by News 4 about families' insistence that they had remained in the intake office for days, Adams said he was told by his staff that "nobody was sleeping on floors." (Migrant families described spending the night with 60 or even 80 other people and not enough food.)
Homeless Services officials have maintained that while families may have spent the night in PATH, in many instances that did not amount to a legal violation, because the city is only required to place families in shelter that night if they have entered the intake center by 10 p.m. But families and Legal Aid lawyers told News 4 that the city unfairly caused people to miss that 10 p.m. deadline, by leaving them outside on lines for many hours as they struggled to process applications because of staff shortages and too few Spanish translators.
Some families said if they were brought to a shelter at all it, was for 90 minutes to shower and return.
Upon learning about the alleged violations from News 4, the Legal aid Society complained in a statement saying, "In the last ten years, the City has violated this law only one other time, and when it did, the previous administration notified Legal Aid and the Coalition immediately – in stark contrast to the current administration's efforts to hide the needless trauma being inflicted on these vulnerable families."
Text messages obtained by News 4 show the mayor's press office struggling to respond to that criticism from Legal Aid.
In the messages, Savel tells Smart, the city hall press aide, "CGJ (commissioner Gary jenkins) told them they had to wait until after the press conference."
The mayor's spokeswoman replied "So we can't even say like "promptly told them?" to which Savel said "Nope."
According to the text messages Kate Smart says Commissioner Jenkins had also "pulled her aside" and told her "that it didn't happen," a reference to the city violating the law.