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Mayor Bill de Blasio: Increasingly visible homeless population is 'real' and they need city's help

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio attends

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio attends the opening ceremony on Day One of the 2015 US Open on Aug. 31, 2015. Credit: Getty Images / Matthew Stockman

New York City's increasingly visible homeless population is "real" and the city is trying to give people the tools they need to get off the streets, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday in his second WNYC radio interview in two weeks.

The mayor again took listener questions, part of an effort to communicate more directly with the public. De Blasio had hosted a surprise Twitter chat on Monday.

"Yes, there is something real going on here. It is much more an economic problem than it's being acknowledged to be," de Blasio told WNYC host Brian Lehrer about homelessness.

Unlike his predecessors, de Blasio has not hosted a call-in radio show or a town hall forum where he speaks directly with New Yorkers.

The Democrat has made frequent appearances on WNYC and Hot 97, but a political observer said he should try to "hit a broader audience." Town halls, such as those conducted by Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, in different neighborhoods are a good start, said Jeanne Zaino, Iona College political science professor.

"You've got to be able to talk to New Yorkers, and they have to be New Yorkers beyond a certain segment of the population," reached by the public radio and hip-hop stations, she said. "Other people are starting to feel the void."

De Blasio's office announced late Monday that his deputy mayor in charge of health and human services, Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, was leaving to chair the city's Health and Hospitals Corporation board. Barrios-Paoli, the highest-ranking official to depart the administration since de Blasio took office in January 2014, oversaw issues on homelessness.

The mayor said Tuesday on WNYC that the departure was her "personal decision" and commended her for "stemming the tide" of homeless people.

The city's shelter population is now 59,000, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. That number has grown every year since 2011, when the city's Advantage rent subsidy program ended.

"These are human beings who, in many cases, need our help either for economic reasons or mental health or substance abuse reasons -- and we will provide that help to the very best of our ability," de Blasio said. "But at the same time, we're not going to tolerate disorder."

A caller who identified herself as Margo in Manhattan, 67, a homeless woman living in a convent, asked for a meeting with de Blasio and he obliged.

When Lehrer played a clip of Giuliani telling NBC New York last month that homeless people were "chased out of the city" when he was mayor, de Blasio responded: "We don't chase human beings who are in crisis. We try and address their problems and get them to the kind of help they need."

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