It was a small, innocuous newspaper ad that drew Elisabeth Huguenin, now president of the embattled D.C. Coalition for the Homeless, into a career as an advocate for the poor and shelterless in 1983.

The French-born Huguenin, now 34, had just earned her master's degree in social work from Catholic University. She had come to Washington with her American husband, who is now an economic consultant on assignment in Saudi Arabia. They live in Northwest.

"I wanted to become a clinician, a therapist," she recalled yesterday. "I was always interested in helping people, especially people suffering emotionally."

Then she saw the ad for a job at Sarah House, a shelter for women, most of whom are mentally ill. "It was the word 'counseling' that caught my attention," Huguenin said, in her thick French accent. "I didn't know anything about working with the homeless, but once I did it, I really loved it. I worked so much overtime, you wouldn't believe it."

Now, just four years later, as the unsalaried president of the coalition, Huguenin finds herself under fire, her administration and her management skills questioned by the federal government and some of her board members.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Monday suspension of about $2 million in further payments to the coalition in the wake of allegations of financial improprieties and beatings of residents by staff members at the group's Anacostia shelter.

The money was part of a $3.7 million grant given to the coalition last fall to house the homeless. Government officials have said the coalition has failed to account fully for the money it has received.

"Of course I'm not very happy about what's happening," said Huguenin, who has lived in this country for 13 years. "The actions of one or two individuals should not render the organization a corrupt one or a bad one.

"I'm proud of us," she said. "We are a unique organization. We have created comprehensive services for the homeless individual."

She has publicly squabbled with homeless advocate Mitch Snyder, head of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, on how to best meet the needs of the homeless. Huguenin favors a more structured environment than that offered by CCNV, which she describes as "laissez faire" and "warehousing."

The coalition was awarded the government grant shortly after a judge ruled that CCNV's shelter was unfit and should be closed. The coalition, which was incorporated in 1981, is composed of most of the District's more than two dozen homeless shelter providers.

Huguenin joined the board in mid-1984 and was elected vice president, according to a coalition spokesman. She became president when Sandra Fagans resigned for personal reasons.

A coalition board member suggested that Huguenin's inexperience has contributed to her naivete.

"I think she's easily led, not firm enough," said the Rev. Imagene Stewart, director of a shelter for homeless families.

"I just don't think she's had the experience to deal with the people she has to deal with on this issue," said Stewart. "She's a Christian-hearted woman and she thought all her friends would do everything as told.

"But [the homeless] is a political issue now," Stewart said. "There are wolves out here and folks will take advantage of you."