migrant crisis

NYC Dept. of Investigation Opens Probe Into Alleged Shelter Cover-Up: Sources

New York City's Department of Social Services fired its spokeswoman last Friday, a source said, following pushback over what the department knew about shelter violations - and who it told

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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 New York City Department of Investigation has opened a probe into the city's Department of Social Services, after News 4 reports on allegations DSS tried to cover up legal violations at its homeless shelter intake center, two sources familiar with the matter said.

On Thursday, the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless demanded an investigation into the social services agency, after News 4 first reported the DSS spokeswoman was fired after pushing back on efforts by department leadership to conceal legal violations in the shelter system.

Two sources confirmed Friday that the DOI acted quickly, opening a probe, with one source saying DOI has called in at least one witness for an interview next week.

"DOI is aware of this matter and declines further comment," that department said in a statement.

Word of the investigation came just hours after Mayor Eric Adams defended his social services commissioner and the department he leads, saying their work was "commendable" and that he was "proud" of the agency.

“While we have seen no public indication of an investigation, DOI is an independent agency and will decide on their own what they will or will not investigate. As was previously stated, Commissioner Jenkins was informed of the issue and immediately informed Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom that same morning. There was never any intention by DSS to delay communication of the issue to anyone at City Hall," Adams' spokesman Fabien Levy said in a statement.

Email and text messages provided to the News 4 I-Team suggest that the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Julia Savel had flagged 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."

Adams, in a radio interview Friday morning, said he stood by Jenkins' staff decisions and said any conversation he had had with the commissioner about firing Savel was "a private personnel conversation."

"5,000 individuals have been processed by Gary Jenkins and his agency, it’s really commendable," the mayor told 880 AM. “I’m proud of that agency.”

(News 4 requested time with Adams on Thursday, after he left a news conference without taking questions as planned. The mayor's press office subsequently offered an exclusive Adams interview on migrant issues to NBC national producers instead, without notifying News 4, telling the network they would handle local requests separately. The mayor ultimately did four local interviews Friday morning, but one was not offered to News 4.)

The Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless hailed the news of the DOI probe.

“The Adams Administration has been anything but forthright and transparent on this crisis, and the endless and confusing pivots warrant a spotlight," they said in a statement Friday.

"The City has still refused to provide us timely data, information we know is readily available, since the initial breaches of law first occurred weeks ago, which raises additional concerns."

Timeline of Events

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 Legal Aid, 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 4 a.m. to notify social services managers of any violations. (Jenkins has also worked in city social services for 30+ years, and was previously administrator and before that first deputy commissioner of the Human Resources Administration. Asked Friday if he was concerned that such an experienced commissioner did not know about those reporting rules, Adams replied "there are many laws we must abide by.")

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.

In another statement provided late Thursday, Levy told News 4 that Jenkins had been informed of the families staying at the intake office the morning after it occurred, and "immediately" informed Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom at City Hall.

"There was never any intention to delay communication of the issue to anyone at City Hall. The quoted text messages are misleading, lack context, and were shared by a former junior staffer in the administration who was not privy to conversations between our leadership teams," Levy said in a statement. "We will continue to do the hard and important work to provide shelter to everyone who seeks it.”

The mayor, in his radio interview Friday, also said there was no cover-up and insisted that Jenkins "immediately reported" the violations of the law.

In New York City's homeless shelters, migrant families have not received the proper help, which could violate a 2008 court settlement that requires the provision of proper shelter in the city. Melissa Russo reports.

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.

Untrue Statements?

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.

Melissa Russo with new developments in the migrant crisis in New York City.

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."

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.)

At least three more buses carrying more than 100 asylum seekers are expected to arrive at the Port Authority Bus Terminal Wednesday, New York City officials say, potentially further pressuring the city's social safety net as its mayor wars with the governor of Texas over the escalating crisis. Gaby Acevedo reports.

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.

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