Nonprofits welcome Palacio, an “unknown quantity”

Nonprofits welcome Palacio, an “unknown quantity”

January 11, 2016

Many nonprofit human service providers are cautiously optimistic about Herminia Palacio, the new leader appointed to manage the problems of poverty and homelessness in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this past week that Palacio – who has never held public office in New York – would take over as Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services at the end of January. The post has been vacant since Lilliam Barrios-Paoli’s departure in August.


Palacio will oversee a host of city agencies, including the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, NYC Health + Hospitals, the Human Resources Administration, the Department of Homeless Services, the Administration for Children's Services, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence and the Office of Food Policy.

“I’m happy that they’re filling the position, frankly,” said Tony Hannigan, executive director of the Center for Urban Community Services. The appointment fills a leadership vacuum on the critical issue of homelessness, he said. But while Palacio’s resume looks impressive, he added, “she’s an unknown quantity to me.”

That sentiment was echoed by many providers and advocates, who nonetheless remained hopeful about Palacio’s upcoming tenure.


“I don’t know her personally and we haven’t worked with her,” said Jennifer Flynn, executive director of advocacy group VOCAL-NY. Nevertheless, she said VOCAL-NY has “a lot of faith in the mayor’s ability to pick good people,” lauding de Blasio’s existing “dream team” of Human Resources Agency Commissioner Steve Banks and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Commissioner Mary Bassett. “She comes with a strong reputation, and with those commissioners in place,” Flynn said, “you can’t go wrong.”


Much of the mayor’s introduction of Palacio during a Jan. 5th press conference focused on her biography – a native of the Bronx whose blue-collar parents worked for the city. De Blasio also trumpeted her accomplishments working for health agencies in San Francisco managing the AIDS crisis and in Harris County, Texas, where she served as a top health official during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Palacio’s lack of New York City government experience has been of some concern, but those NY Nonprofit Media spoke with said they were satisfied with her qualifications as described by the mayor.

Nonprofits especially gravitated toward her message of interagency collaboration and a more personal approach to working with community organizations.

In a television interview with NY1 on Thursday, Palacio said the city required “a new type of leader” to build a “culture of health.” She described the need for “leaders who understand how to build relationships and keep relationships,” and “leaders who emerge from the community.”

“This is the kind of work I’ve done my entire life,” Palacio said.

The message has played well with nonprofit leaders across a number of areas.

Christy Parque, executive director of Homeless Services United, said “we are especially heartened by the holistic perspective she will bring, which recognizes linkages between health and poverty and people’s ability to thrive in the community.”

“We are very happy the administration has filled this position and are looking forward to building a partnership with her to address the very significant challenges faced by the nonprofits themselves as well as the communities they serve across the city,” said Allison Sesso, executive director of the Human Services Council.

Some nonprofit leaders quietly expressed a lingering remorse over the resignation of Barrios-Paoli, who was a favorite among nonprofits in the human services field before she stepped down last August amid an outcry over the mayor’s perceived lack of action on homelessness. Barrios-Paoli had managed five city agencies under three mayors and had years of experience in leadership positions with New York City nonprofit organizations.


“(Barrios-Paoli) certainly was very respected, not only in the Latino community, but throughout the city of New York,” said Javier Nieves, chairman of the Campaign for Fair Latino Representation.

“The fact that this other lady is coming in – we find it laudable – we don’t know yet what she can do,” Nieves said, explaining that while he couldn’t speak to Palacio’s abilities, he was pleased that the mayor had kept the position filled by a Latino.

Still, Nieves said, the appointment doesn’t represent progress on the underrepresentation of Latinos in city government. “It’s almost like musical chairs, filling up those positions that were previously held by Latinos. So, there is no net gain here.”

The mayor made it clear that his new health and human services chief has a difficult task ahead, saying at the press conference that Palacio’s job was “clearly one of the toughest, more rigorous roles in local government anywhere in the country."

Weighing the unenviable task ahead of Palacio against her relative anonymity in the city’s nonprofit community, Hannigan summed up the feelings of many service providers and advocates. “My feeling is: Give her a chance.”

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.