The year Ann Marie Oliva contracted malaria in Kenya was the year she promised herself she would dedicate her life to fighting poverty if she made it out alive.
For four months, Oliva, then a junior in college, lived at sea as part a study-abroad program. The ship had rounded the southern tip of Africa and was crossing the Atlantic, when Oliva, severely anemic with a 108-degree fever, was helicoptered off to a hospital in Brazil.
“It sounds kind of hokey, but I think that sort of solidified for me my intent to do something meaningful,” Oliva said.
Oliva, 40 and now director of the Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a finalist for this year’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals for her work in getting federal funds more quickly to organizations that help the homeless.
Oliva led the switch to electronic processing of grant applications, allowing HUD to deliver more than $1.6 billion in grants to local organizations in a third of the time it used to take — cutting the process from six months to two.
“I had seen poverty in India, Taiwan, Kenya, Brazil, but I wanted to start here because I knew that we have plenty of issues in our own country,” said Oliva, who was recruited to head the office in 2007.
On her first week on the job, Oliva was stunned to see the amount of paperwork the office handled. Just one application for federal grant money required a stack a foot thick, she said. Last year, more than 8,000 funding applications were submitted.
“It was ludicrous,” Oliva said. “If you piled them up, they would take up the whole office.”
Since the transition from paper to an electronic system known as e-snaps in 2008, HUD has cut administrative costs by 90 percent and tracked results and allocated resources more efficiently, she said.
“It was incredibly complex and difficult to do that first year — I cried at my desk a lot,” said Oliva, who admitted a sappy commercial is enough to get her tearing up. “It was not an option for us to fail and not get this money out the door by January 1st .”
Oliva’s office has helped 935,000 people with $1.5 billion in stimulus funding — a figure double her office’s budget that year. Her team of about 30 employees is now working to draft new regulations to streamline the nation’s homeless programs as part of the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act.
Oliva, the third of four children, grew up in Havertown, Pa., in a service-minded household, where the two most important lessons she learned were to “vote and give back to the community.” Her parents immigrated to the United States in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Oliva graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in politics and philosophy and a minor in economics.
She moved from Pittsburgh to New Mexico to fight poverty as a Volunteers in Service to America member, where she learned after about a month on the job that she was not cut out to be a direct-service provider.
One time, she brought a homeless person she met on the bus home. (Her roommates were not pleased, she said.) And for a time, she lived in the same building as some of her clients.
“I could never draw the line,” Oliva said. “I was too emotionally involved to be an effective advocate.”
But what she could do well, Oliva realized, was design programs, draft grant proposals and raise money.
In 1995, Oliva started working for the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, a nonprofit group tasked with transitioning the District’s shelter-based programs to a fully integrated system, a concept called a “continuum of care” model that HUD sought to replicate across the country.
About a decade later, Oliva served as a technical assistance provider for HUD homeless management information systems until she was recruited to lead the department’s Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs in 2007.
Sue Marshall, the founding executive director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness in the District, which applied for and received about $18 million in HUD funding this year on behalf of the city’s various homelessness programs, said the shift from paper to digital has been instrumental in serving the city’s homeless.
“It helps everybody from people who put together the applications to the folks who review them and, most importantly, to the people we all serve,” Marshall said. “And the special thing about Ann is she recognizes that, and that is what drives her passion.”
Oliva, who is married to Prasad Gerard, lives in an apartment a few blocks from her office on Seventh and D streets SW during the week. She and her husband, who teaches chemistry at Poolesville High School in Montgomery County, spend the weekends at their Calvert County home.
They live with Chap and Jake, two shelter mutts. (“Where else would the director of homeless services get dogs?” she quips.) She and her husband often take their motorboat out on the Chesapeake Bay, the only time she is without her BlackBerry and laptop.
Twelve-hour days are not uncommon for Oliva, but on Tuesdays, she leaves promptly at 7:45 p.m. for her ballroom dance lessons, something she picked up over the past year.
She doesn’t bring her husband: Her instructor has enough on his hands dealing with one “type A” personality, she said. Oliva is often reprimanded when she tries to back-lead instead of follow when she dances salsa. (“Here, I am the boss,” he reminds her.)
While much of her role these days involves policy work, Oliva tries to stay connected to the people she serves by stopping at shelters when she travels.
“It’s easy to lose it when you’re writing regulations and counting numbers and such,” Oliva said. “It’s important for someone in an administrative role, like me, to remember why we’re doing it.”