Gary Jenkins, the head of New York City’s Department of Social Services, resigned as commissioner Tuesday night, capping a tenure marked by a record-high rise in homelessness and a serious staff shortage at the agency he leads.
Jenkins’ year-long tenure leading the agency, which includes the Department of Homeless Services and the Human Resources Administration that oversees several public benefits programs, has been marred with turmoil and significant setbacks, like a surge in asylum-seekers entering the city’s strained shelter system and the slow allocation of food stamps and other assistance to thousands of low-income New Yorkers.
“There’s no discord. There’s no running away,” he said during an interview with Errol Louis on NY1 Tuesday night. “This is something that was already planned and I’m happy I could take this opportunity after serving 36 years in the agency.”
He did not disclose his next move.
“More to come within a month or so,” he said.
DSS First Deputy Commissioner Molly Park will take over as acting commissioner after Jenkins officially exits on March 3, City Hall spokesperson Kate Smart said.
Under Jenkins, the DHS shelter population has surpassed 70,000 people, the highest number since the city began keeping track more than three decades ago. The number rose as tens of thousands of asylum seekers arrived in the five boroughs since last spring, including many bussed by Republican governors of southern states with hardline immigration policies.
As the migrant crisis picked up steam in August, with buses arriving daily to the Port Authority, Jenkins drew heat for being on vacation in Mexico, which Adams defended.
According to the mayor’s office, more than 42,000 migrants have arrived in New York City in recent months, straining an already beleaguered shelter system. Thousands of migrants have flooded the shelter system, according to the mayor’s office, resulting in the opening of temporary relief shelters and hotel rooms to house the new arrivals that’s expected to cost the city more than $1 billion this year.
At the same time, record-high rents and the resumption of evictions following a pandemic-related moratorium forced more New Yorkers into homelessness.
A staff shortage at HRA also took a toll on the agency’s basic administrative functions. Overall, 20% of DSS positions were vacant in December 2022, according to a report by the city comptroller
“Under his leadership, the Department of Social Services invested a historic amount to support unsheltered New Yorkers — bringing and keeping more than 1,100 people living on our subways into shelter as part of our Subway Safety Plan and inviting those with lived experiences to the table to help craft our housing and homelessness plans,” Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement Tuesday.
Jenkins said Tuesday that the agency was working to “entice and encourage” more New Yorkers to apply for the vacant jobs.
In late January, the Adams administration, Jenkins and the Human Resources Administrator Lisa Fitzpatrick were named as defendants in a class action lawsuit over delays in the timely processing of food stamps, known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. A serious staffing shortage at HRA has led to long wait times for food stamp and cash assistance applicants. The state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance has declined to provide administrative relief.
Jenkins previously served as HRA administrator under former DSS Commissioner Steven Banks. He worked at HRA for 36 years before rising to the top post last year. During his tenure, he has frequently referenced his own experience with homelessness.
“This work is deeply personal to me,” he testified at a Council hearing last May. “I experienced homelessness and spent time in a shelter as a child, and so I understand first-hand that our work changes lives and that we have a responsibility to provide our clients with resources that they need to not just survive, but to thrive in our city.”
City Councilmember Diana Ayala, the chair of the committee overseeing DSS, said Jenkins was dealt a tough hand over the past year.
“It was his intention to use his life experience to shape the way we address homelessness and poverty,” Ayala said. “It’s been a very difficult year and I’m sure he did the best he could under difficult circumstances. It was a horrible year.”
His tenure as commissioner has been marked by additional controversy following the dismissal of an agency spokesperson last year. That spokesperson, Julia Savel, accused Jenkins of covering up unlawful overnight stays at the city’s family homeless intake center. Savel said she was fired after alerting the mayor’s office to the breach of family shelter laws, prompting a probe by the city’s Department of Investigation. DOI declined to comment on the ongoing investigation Tuesday.