Former New York City Department of Social Services Commissioner Gary Jenkins has landed a position with Mayor Eric Adams’ former chief of staff Frank Carone, who’s about to formally launch a new consulting business, Oaktree Solutions. Jenkins, who’s been coy about his next move after publicly announcing his resignation in February, spoke to City & State shortly after the news broke about his new role – though City & State reported last month on the rumor he was planning to join Carone’s firm. Jenkins said he’s fine with the optics of working for Carone and while still the focus of a Department of Investigation probe into allegations he covered up violations of the city’s shelter system rules last year.
In a brief telephone interview Wednesday, Jenkins opened up about the sometimes thankless work of overseeing his former agency and why he’s pivoting over to the private sector without any regrets.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did Frank Carone come to you with this opportunity?
I've been looking at other opportunities out there, outside of city government after 30 years of service to New Yorkers. It was a good opportunity for me to step out and see what else is out there that I can avail myself to. Frank … Oaktree Solutions was one of the opportunities that I was exploring and it kept coming to the top of the list. So, when I had the conversation with Frank, it just felt like a perfect fit. And it is the perfect fit because it's not just New York and locally based. It's an international firm. So it gives me an opportunity to lend my expertise and my experience to others who may need some assistance with social services. I'm really excited about it.
What kind of clients will you be working with?
Anyone that needs some assistance with social services. I want to make sure I make myself available to them, to help them in their endeavors.
Given your more than 30 years in government, including this past year, what will the selling points be for these clients? How do you convince them to take you on?
I lead the largest social services agency in the nation. New York City has done so much to help low income New Yorkers to reach a level of self sufficiency. I started out as a frontline staff member and rose to the top of my agency. So my years of experience are definitely going to lend a helping hand in any endeavor that clients may have, or any problems they may have, as it relates to social services.
Do you look back at this past year as one of accomplishment? Challenge? How will you reflect back on this past year when you're signing on a new client, or when they ask you?
Of course, it was full of challenges, but when I accepted the role, I knew that there were going to be challenges. The agency that I lead, we had so many accomplishments. We wanted to ensure that we brought people with lived experience to the table, which we did, and we listened to them as part of our policymaking. Hence, the time that folks had to come into a location, to a shelter, there was a curfew and we extended that curfew. That was born out of sitting down with folks that lived in a shelter to say, “How can we best help you?” When I first took office, I said I wanted to make sure that one, we brought folks to the table with lived experience and two, we improve that technology. We accomplish both of those.
You still have a pending Department of Investigation probe. I’ve read that you have not yet been approached by investigators. If a client brings this up, how will you explain it?
As I said, from day one, I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't do anything inappropriately. DOI is an independent investigatory agency. They have a right to do their investigation. When and if they reach out, I will have that conversation with them and look forward to it. But you know, if a client asked me that question, I live my life by integrity. I've risen up through the ranks from a frontline staff member to the commissioner, and I valued and really loved the agency and the work they did and that I was doing while I was there. I will continue to just be a resource to those who need my assistance.
Some folks though might be concerned about the optics, of it looking bad leaving your position to join Frank Carone’s new firm. How do you feel about that? What do you say to them?
I don't think it looks bad at all. It is an opportunity to go and help others across this country, as it relates to social services. And again, I've led the largest social services agency in the nation. Of course, I'm looking forward to working with Oaktree Solutions, working with Frank, on finding solutions to problems that folks may have. I'm proud of the fact that I'll be working with Frank and other colleagues in this endeavor.
What about criticism from people who say you left the agency in the midst of a crisis, with homelessness at record highs and more than half of food stamp applicants getting their benefits late. Do you feel that way?
I don't feel that way at all. I knew that I was not staying the entire time. The mayor and I did have that conversation. He said it publicly. I wanted to make sure that the administration got off on the right foot. No one could have expected the asylum-seekers crisis that contributed to the rise in the census. And, I will say that under Mayor Adams’ leadership, we've done a fantastic job. Not one family slept on the street. We took in everyone that came to us that needed our system, that needed a roof over their head. And the administration continues to do that.
What would you tell your permanent successor when they take on the job?
I would tell them that this is the best job in city government. It's helping individuals who not only want our services, but need our services. And just to have an open mind. Make sure that you are listening to the clients that we serve, and that they should always be looking for ways to improve processes by taking into account, as well, the staff that works for them.
What about your competitors? Are you feeling pretty confident that you can stand up to the competition?
This is always going to be competition out there, right? But I'm approaching this work by saying, “How can I be of assistance to solving problems? How can Oaktree Solutions be there to assist them with solving whatever issues, whatever problems they have.” Having over 30 years of experience in this field, I'm an expert. So I'm looking forward to helping others.
As a career public servant having overseen the Department of Homeless Services and Human Resources Administration, are you going to be consulting specifically on homelessness and related topics? Or do you have a larger portfolio that you might also dip into?
I start the position on Monday. So once I get in, I’ll really look to see how I can evolve the position and the responsibilities. As we know, I cannot and I will not interact with my agency, my former agency, the Department of Social Services, for one year (per city conflicts of interest rules). I'm going to abide by that rule, I just want to be there for other cities and states and municipalities that can use my assistance and my expertise. I'm looking forward to helping.
David Meadvin, an advisor to Oaktree, clarified that Jenkins’ portfolio will be broader than homeless services and that he also will focus on working with nonprofits and social service organizations.
Your work in government sometimes could be thankless, from what you’ve told me in the past. Even your children were reluctant to follow in your footsteps for this very reason. Is this the reason your pivoting to the private sector?
No, no. Again, after serving over 30 years and while I still have the energy in me, I do want to venture out into the public sector to see how I can continue to contribute. Yes, one would think that the position is a thankless position and I've always told my staff, the press and some publications criticize everything that we do, but we know the value in the changes that we are making in our clients’ lives. We stay focused on that. And having that conversation with my kids, they also see the hard work that myself and my former colleagues put in and how it's worth it. That is the agency that helped my family get on its feet. If they were not there, by the grace of God, I don't know where we would have ended up. So, I'm very grateful for the public service that I've done for over 30 years. But I'm also extremely grateful to the agency that supported my family and to Mayor Adams for continuing to have a vision and making sure that his managers, his commissioners and his city staff stay focused on our mission.
Some people think that the mayor made this happen as a favor to you. Did he put in a good word for you?
The mayor did not make this happen. This was strictly my decision. The mayor was supportive of my decision to move on. And again, I had other opportunities that I was exploring, and it was my choice to really go for Oaktree Solutions. And I'm glad that Frank said yes, and he's bringing me on board.
What other positions did you consider?
There were other consultant roles and not for profits.
In New York City or was it also nationwide?
I’d rather not get into those details. It was definitely other positions.
How do people get in front of you for your new role?
I'm quite sure that way people are going to start reaching out to me at Oaktree Solutions. We will have a website that's going to be live and active very shortly.
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