Barrios-Paoli, insider for change

Lilliam Barrios-Paoli. (Bill de Blasio)
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Dan Goldberg

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When Bill de Blasio introduced Lilliam Barrios-Paoli Thursday as deputy mayor of health and human services, the two took turns decrying the current plight of the homeless, the failed policies of the Bloomberg administration and promised to reform a system that, they said, has left many behind.

The rhetoric was ambitious, but the challenges facing Barrios-Paoli, who currently heads the Bloomberg administration's Department for the Aging and has served under three of the last four mayors, are enormous, and have plagued administrations for decades.

Bloomberg made headlines in 2004 when he promised to cut homelessness by two-thirds in five years.

Now, New York's homeless population is higher than ever.

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Both de Blasio and Barrios-Paoli denounced current policies and cited the cancellation of the Advantage program in particular. But the details of their plan to change things were left for later.

Certainly, what Barrios-Paoli signifies is a change of tone and a change of emphasis.

“She cares about the poorest New Yorkers,” said Patrick Markee, a senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless.

Where Bloomberg was often criticized for his aloof and technical approach to the problem, de Blasio and Barrios-Paoli emphasized compassion and concern.

Barrios-Paoli criticized Bloomberg's “punitive” approach, saying it was folly to the poor as if they were to blame for their poverty.
“We need to change that attitude,” she said. “It is incredibly exciting for me to be in administration that really makes that a central tenet, not just something that it would be good to do, but makes it a central, central thing.”

Muzzy Rosenblatt, a former acting commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services who is now executive director of the Bowery Residents Committee, believes this change in emphasis can help Barrios succeed where others have failed.

He said her experience both navigating city bureaucracy and time in the nonprofit world--she worked at The United Way and at Safe Space NYC--gives her a frame of reference that has been lacking in the past.
“I think Lilliam may bring homeless services to the next level by moving beyond how much do we do to how we do it,” Rosenblatt said.

It's not enough, Rosenblatt said, to just spend more money or implement programs. Attitude is crucial, he said.

“Rather than an endless pursuit of capacity, there are other ways to meet the need,” Rosenblatt said. “If you pursue quality you get capacity through turnover.”

Known as a straight-shooter with a dry sense of humor, Barrios-Paoli , 67, adds some more diversity to the de Blasio inner circle. Born in Mexico, she graduated from Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City in 1971 and received a doctorate in anthropology from the New School in 1978.

She has served in three administrations over four decades. Most recently, Bloomberg tapped her to lead the Department of Aging. She has also led the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the Department of Employment and its human resources administration.

It was there her reputation for candidness and accountability--on display today as she repeatedly criticized Bloomberg, her current boss--may have caused trouble. She was never wholly supportive of Giuliani's workfare program, and broke ranks by telling reporters that the city had removed the staff of a city shelter for battered women for political reasons. She was removed from her position and named executive director of Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx.

From there she joined the United Way where she was vice president and chief executive before becoming president and chief executive of Safe Space NYC, a nonprofit that works with children.