Maria Foscarinis: Over 30 years fighting for the rights of the homeless

Maria Foscarinis: Over 30 years fighting for the rights of the homeless

Making my first article in Kathimerini English Edition about a woman is no coincidence. It is a statement. One that seeks to rectify the fact that Greek-American women and their accomplishments are largely overlooked by most Greek-American organizations.

Attorney Maria Foscarinis, whose vision and hard work have helped change the lives of millions of people across America, is one of these women. Born and raised in New York City to parents who emigrated from the Ionian island of Cephalonia, Maria is an idealist, who doesn’t just “talk the talk” but “walks the walk,” raising millions of people out of poverty. As the founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the only national legal group dedicated to ending and preventing homelessness, she has worked tirelessly for more than 30 years to end homelessness through legal advocacy.

The only child of Rosa Foscarinis, a pediatrician beloved by the New York Greek community, and Nicolas Foscarinis, a political scientist, Maria grew up in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and describes her life as privileged. She graduated from Barnard College, the Ivy League school for women, earned a master’s degree in philosophy and ultimately a law degree from Columbia University, joining the Wall Street law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, one of the most prestigious in the country, where she defended clients such as Exxon and Ford, among others.

Growing up in a civic-minded and socially conscious family and community, Maria has always been interested in social justice. The hunger and deprivation that her own parents experienced during WWII when Greece was occupied by the Nazis further sensitized her. She continues to find inspiration in many of the stories of bravery and resistance from this painful time in Greece’s history, including her mother’s brother, Nikos, whose photograph still graces her living room. Arrested by the Nazis, Nikos was imprisoned and eventually executed in June of 1942 at the age of 23. The letters he wrote from his prison cell are some of Maria’s most prized possessions.

While at Sullivan & Cromwell, Maria seized the opportunity to do pro bono work for the Coalition for the Homeless, representing thousands of families that had been denied emergency shelter in a class action lawsuit. Seeing the positive impact of proper legal representation on the lives of the disadvantaged, she soon realized this was her calling. When the Coalition asked her in 1985 to establish a Washington office, she saw it as an opportunity to use her knowledge to make a difference, especially at a time when homelessness was approaching the level of national crisis.

In a move that would be counterintuitive for most people, Maria left her lucrative Wall Street job, her family and friends, and the city she loved, and moved to Washington, DC, on a $10,000 salary, a far cry from her earnings with the law firm. With her life profoundly changed, she embraced her “downward mobility,” depriving herself of fundamentals, embarking on a path that would change official Washington’s approach to homelessness and improve the lives of countless families, including millions of children.

Her mission was to organize a campaign that would force the federal government to deal with the issue of homelessness and its many consequences. Viewing the law as a powerful tool for fundamental change toward a more just world, she wanted more than piecemeal and inevitably temporary solutions. In her own words, this was “an opportunity to put into effect the abstract notions I had about the purpose of being a lawyer.”

She worked tirelessly to draft and push through Congress the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, the first major federal legislation on homelessness. The act authorized $1 billion over two years to fund emergency aid, including shelter and housing. The law also created important legal rights, including requiring federal agencies to allow nonprofit organizations to use vacant federal properties to serve the homeless. As a result, more than 500 properties provide housing, daycare, job training, food and other services, helping more than 2 million homeless or poor every year. The McKinney-Vento Act also guarantees access to public education for homeless children. When some government agencies ignored the law, Maria took them to court.

In 1989, Maria went on to establish the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, an organization she built from scratch. Defining its mission as ending and preventing homelessness through legal advocacy, systemic reform, public education, and impact litigation, the Law Center has placed homelessness within the larger context of poverty, and works to remedy its underlying causes and symptoms.

For nearly 30 years as head of the Law Center, Maria has been working to protect and extend the rights of homeless people, including the education rights of homeless children. Among its many projects and activities, the Center has trained hundreds of pro bono lawyers, and provides training and support to organizations throughout the country to help them be more effective in dealing with homelessness issues. It has also established partnerships with major law firms to provide pro bono assistance to families, amounting to over $6 million annually. It has helped pass legislation to protect tenants against unfair eviction, strengthen education rights for homeless children, and protect the housing rights of domestic violence survivors. It won class action lawsuits for emergency housing, education, meals and basic healthcare for victims of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Maria has also brought the issue of homelessness to international human rights bodies to put pressure on the US government to protect the rights of homeless Americans. The list of achievements is long and continues to grow.

The New York Times has included Maria in its short list of “social reformers,” while those involved with homelessness issues consider her “extremely effective” in finding legislative solutions to homelessness and its consequences. Another of Maria’s many admirable attributes is that she works quietly and behind the scenes. Her unassuming manner and low-key demeanor hide a toughness and determination that have seen her fight as well as work within the system to make a difference in the lives of many.

Her work has inspired many, including novelist, attorney and activist John Grisham, whose novel “The Street Lawyer” tells the story of a lawyer much like Maria, who left a law firm career to become an advocate for homeless people. Grisham continues to serve as honorary chairman of the Law Center’s Executive Advisory Partners Committee, a group of law firms and corporate legal departments that support the Law Center through pro bono work and financial contributions.

For all the fights Maria has willingly taken on over the years, there have also been some she did not choose, fighting them with her characteristic determination. In the late 1980s, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer, forced her to undergo nine months of chemotherapy, while she continued to work. A relapse three years later called for more serious treatment, an autologous bone marrow transplant, which uses the patient’s own stem cells and is just as dangerous as the illness itself – if not more so. After several months of hospitalization, Maria emerged victorious and has been cancer-free since 1990.

In 1998, she lost her beloved mother Rosa to a car accident in Greece, where such accidents are so frequent, they often reach the level of national scourge. From personal association with her, I have also learned that she is a loyal friend, maintaining old friendships and continuing to honor her parents’ relationships with members of the New York Greek-American community.

Her Greek is impeccable and her love of Greece strong. It is a love she shares with her husband Nathan Stoltzfus, an American historian, professor of Holocaust studies at Florida State University, as well as author and editor of seven books. His work has been translated into Greek, Turkish, German, Swedish and Russian. With a house in Kiveri, Argolida, the two visit Greece annually, and often travel to Cephalonia, her parents’ place of birth.

I consider myself privileged to have known Maria for more than 30 years. Her achievements have been an inspiration and a measuring stick, against which most of us would fail to measure up. Yet it is a comfort to know that there are people like her who make the world a better place. Please take a moment and to learn about her work at www.nlchp.org. I promise you will be amazed.

Connie Mourtoupalas is an exhibitions curator and former president of the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago.

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