Maria Foscarinis is the founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (the Law Center). Maria started her career in the Litigation Group at S&C, where pro bono work for the nonprofit organization Coalition for the Homeless led to a position in 1985 opening its Washington, D.C., office. In that role, she worked tirelessly to enact the first major federal legislation addressing homelessness, resulting in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. A few years later, she founded the Law Center with the mission to end and prevent homelessness through legal advocacy.
What led you to work with the homeless?
I became interested in doing pro bono work while in law school and when I interviewed at S&C it was something that I expressed interest in. The second pro bono case I took on at the Firm involved representing a Long Island family who had been denied emergency shelter. I had an "aha!" moment when I realized what this work meant to these families.
Tell us about that case.
It was filed by the Coalition for the Homeless and Nassau/Suffolk Legal Services. Bob Hayes, who is an S&C alumnus, co-founded Coalition for the Homeless. He approached S&C, asking for pro bono support and I signed up. I began by meeting with the Legal Services lawyers and the families, which was eye-opening. I had certainly been out to Long Island many times, but I had never seen this side of it—extreme poverty in the midst of an otherwise wealthy suburb. I knew intellectually that extreme poverty existed, but actually seeing it in the context of a legal case made me realize how I, as a lawyer, could make a difference. My work mattered because if I didn't get involved, these families would likely go unrepresented.
Our case argued that the county violated federal law by denying our client emergency shelter. I worked on the case for over two years, and we were ultimately successful.
Was it after this case that you decided to pursue nonprofit work fulltime?
It was around that time, yes. It was the mid-1980s, which was when homelessness was really becoming a national crisis, and there was no federal response. Bob asked me to start a D.C. office that would organize the campaign to get the federal government to respond to homelessness, and I thought that sounded exciting.
What was the idea for starting the Law Center and leaving the Coalition for the Homeless?
The idea for the Law Center was to have an organization specifically focused on legal advocacy. We do policy advocacy, impact litigation and legal education, working with a lot of different organizations throughout the country. We work on the causes and the symptoms of homelessness, including lack of affordable housing, domestic violence and access to education for homeless children. We also work to fight the criminalization of homelessness, which is when laws are passed that make it a crime to do things like sleep, sit or even eat in public.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Before founding the Law Center, I worked on getting the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act enacted. It's still the major federal legislation addressing homelessness, and at the Law Center we've worked to expand it. We've brought groundbreaking litigation to enforce provisions of that Act—such as the rights of homeless children to go to school, and the right of service providers to use vacant federal property to house homeless people. We've also brought the issue of homelessness to international human rights bodies to put pressure on the U.S. government to protect the rights of homeless Americans. Most of all I'm proud that the Law Center has attracted a very talented, passionate and dedicated group of people—staff, board and pro bono lawyers—who make a difference in the lives of homeless people every single day.
How has S&C supported your efforts working with the homeless?
When I first left S&C, people were very encouraging of my new venture. I was also leaving New York and colleagues at the Firm suggested who I could contact when I arrived in D.C. and who might be helpful.
When I started the Law Center, I had to build an organization from scratch and realized I needed a bigger board and needed more support. At the time, S&C partner Margaret Pfeiffer joined the board of the directors and was a dedicated and very supportive board member for many years; when she retired she recruited S&C partner Julie Jordan to join the board, and she is terrific.
S&C is also part of your LEAP (Lawyers' Executive Advisory Partners) program.
Yes. LEAP is a program for firms that donate both time and funding, and S&C has been a member for years. A recent pro bono project the Firm worked on was to help us update our survey of 187 cities on the criminalization of homelessness, a survey we conduct every couple of years, along with a report analyzing the results. The most recent report, called Housing, Not Handcuffs, is on our website. The Firm is about to take on another update, working with a pro bono legal team from Goldman Sachs, which is also a supporter. Our pro bono partnerships are critical to our success.
What did you take away from your experience at S&C?
I got great training and litigation experience, not just through pro bono work, but through my work for corporate clients. I got to take depositions and argue motions. I even got to try a case by myself for a corporate client. It was a small case that was given to me to handle. I learned how to be a good lawyer, how to put a case together, construct an argument, and write well and persuasively. I also learned about being creative, thinking strategically and the different tools available to us as lawyers to advocate for our clients.