It is 3 o’clock and Maria Foscarinis is meeting with a 63-year-old former homeless woman at a downtown church, going over testimony the woman, a recovering drug addict, will deliver on Capitol Hill the next day.
“I’ll be sitting right next to you,” Foscarinis says to the woman, who stands before her, terrified, with notes propped up on a bust of Abe Lincoln that’s doubling as a podium.
It is 4 o’clock and Foscarinis is sitting in a leather swivel chair in the posh, glass-walled conference room of a law firm across town, talking about statutes and supplemental briefs with other confident young lawyers around a mahogany table.
All that bridges the two worlds of Maria Foscarinis is a herringbone jacket and a 10-minute cab ride, one in which the driver, talking about the woes of the city, figures out that his passenger is a lawyer--and thus figures she has no woes of her own.
“I bet I make less than you do,” she tells the disbelieving cab driver. “I represent the homeless.”
Many find it hard to believe that the 33-year-old founder of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty would give up her lucrative career as a Wall Street lawyer--where she guesses she would now be making more than 10 times the $22,000 she earns here--to dedicate herself to the issue of homelessness.
“It’s perplexing to me,” says Rod A. DeArment, deputy Secretary of Labor who worked with Foscarinis on homeless legislation in the past. “She was on the fast track. Law review editor at Columbia. She was at one of the best law firms in the country. Why she’d give it all up to come here to work for $10,000 (her initial salary in Washington)--there’s got to be some inner drive that lights the way for her.”
An only child who grew up in the privileged milieu of Manhattan’s Upper East Side and private schools, Foscarinis left the prestigious New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, where she was an associate, to open a Washington office of the National Coalition for the Homeless in 1985.
“It seemed like an opportunity to put into effect the abstract notions I had about the purpose of being a lawyer,” she says, sitting in the bare bones office of her National Law Center, a nonprofit organization she started last fall after internal politics caused her to split off from the Coalition.
“It seemed to me that the law involves basic issues of social justice and what the world should be like. At the same time, it provides tools for having an impact in the real world. Ideally, it could be a means to combining those two.”
Those involved in issues of homelessness say that Foscarinis has been extremely effective in doing exactly that--coming up with legal and legislative solutions to problems of homelessness. Unlike high-profile community activists such as Mitch Snyder, most of her work is behind the scenes.
She has drafted and guided through Congress a bill that requires the government to make surplus federal property available for homeless programs and a bill that removes the permanent address requirement for the receipt of federal benefits, for example.
Most important, she is said to be a major architect of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Act of 1987, the landmark legislation providing the first comprehensive emergency aid to the nation’s homeless.
Nearly everyone points to her fine legal skills coupled with sheer determination--a trait that saw her through Hodgkin’s disease 2 1/2 years ago when she continued to work while undergoing chemotherapy for nine months--as the key to her effectiveness.
She admits that “I don’t like to give up. I also don’t like to lose.”
Robert M. Hayes, founder of the New York-based National Coalition for the Homeless, with whom she is said to have had a power struggle that led to her departure, calls her “tough, committed and skillful.”
Few would suspect the toughness and doggedness given her reserved, almost reticent, demeanor. “She’s a real Teddy Roosevelt,” says Jeffrey Pash, an attorney at Covington & Burling, a firm that has done much pro bono legal work with her. “She’s soft-spoken, but she packs a punch. After you’re done speaking with Maria, you know exactly what she has in mind.”
She may have had her advocacy role in mind all along. The daughter of Greek immigrants, both professionals who still live in New York, Foscarinis recalls dinner table conversations from her youth at which she heard about the extreme poverty of relatives in her parents’ homeland.
“It was the contrast between the stories of great deprivation and the fortunate circumstances of my own life that led to the idea that there’s an obligation to act,” she says now.
After attending Barnard College, earning a master’s degree in philosophy at Columbia University and then a law degree at Columbia Law School, Foscarinis clerked for a judge on the U.S. 2nd District Court of Appeals before joining Sullivan & Cromwell in 1982.
While there, working mostly on corporate and securities litigation, she signed up for a pro bono case, a class-action suit against Nassau County and the state of New York for not providing shelter to homeless families. “Growing up in New York, I had often been to Nassau County before, but I’d never seen that side of it. There were families living in cars, living in houses without doors, in single rooms.”
She worked on the case for about two years until Hayes of the National Coalition asked her to move to Washington to set up a local office there.
“I made the decision right away,” she says, even though it meant reducing her $70,000 salary to $10,000. “At the time, $10,000 was the poverty level for a family of four, so it was instructive,” says the lawyer, who lives in an apartment on the fringe of downtown Washington.
Part of the mission of her new organization, in fact, is to put homelessness in the larger context of poverty, to look at causes of, and permanent solutions to homelessness, as opposed to merely emergency relief efforts.