Death of homeless woman poses hard questions

When did we stop caring about Toina Hanson?

It had to have been long before Aug. 4, when her skeleton was found by a berry picker in the woods by the Stroudwater neighborhood.

We say she was 31 but she probably died before her last birthday, since police say her body may have been lying above ground in Maine’s biggest and richest city for as long as a year. No posters showed up on our telephone poles when she disappeared, no rewards were offered for information leading to her recovery, no search parties assembled, no press conferences called.

Hanson was just one of the street people who come through town, known mostly to each other, the cops and the social service providers who try to find them clothes, a safe place to sleep and some help.

So it’s not true that nobody cared about whether Hanson lived or died, but it is true that most of us did not notice her absence and did not find the news of her death remarkable.

Why should we? A homeless woman between the ages of 18 and 44 is 10 times more likely to die than a woman of the same age who has housing. And Hanson is hardly the only street person to die in Portland this year. According to Bill Burns of Preble Street, the service provider and advocacy agency, 17 homeless people have died here so far in 2012.

Their average age at the time of their death was 42, he said. Life expectancy in Maine is 78.

For the homeless, a lack of housing is just one of what is usually a long list of problems. They often have mental illnesses and or addictions to drugs or alcohol. They make risky choices about where they go and who to stay with. That was certainly the case for Hanson.

"She was a very kind person, but she had one demon: alcohol," said Roger Goodoak of Portland. "When she dried up she was the nicest, funniest person around. But when she was around booze, Toina just fell apart."

Goodoak, a formerly homeless father, said Hanson would try to straighten up. She took jobs when she could get them, like cleaning Hadlock Field in between Seadogs games. Often she could be seen "signing" on Union Street, hitting up motorists for some cash when they stopped at the light.

She tried to change, he said, but eventually must have given up.

But when exactly was it that the rest of us gave up on her?

It was probably before she came to Portland. Plenty of people here resent the homeless who drift into town, and taxpayers are not crazy about spending on programs that would get people off the streets.

Hanson was from Michigan, and that would be enough for those in Augusta who want to stop supporting antipoverty services in Portland and other big cities.

They claim that our benefits attract other state’s poor, and that programs that pay for safe housing actually hurt recipients by making them dependent.

We don’t know how much family or community support she got before she made the trip to Maine.

Maybe we gave up on her when she was in school. Maybe it was earlier than that. Maybe it was when she was born to an 18-year-old mother, who according to Toina’s obituary, died at the age of 35, when Toina was 17, estranged from her four children.

We do know that childhood abuse and neglect leave permanent scars. We know that early childhood brain development is influenced by trauma and a lack of stimulation and that children born in unstable homes to irresponsible parents often come to school unable to learn.

Poor neighborhoods in which kids from those backgrounds are concentrated, fill classrooms with children who can’t focus.

We know that most good jobs require a good education, but we are slow to expand and quick to cut the early childhood programs that would help poor children overcome their disorganized households.

Instead, we blame the adults who emerge from that chaos for their lack of initiative. We blame the schools for failing to teach. We blame the parents who failed their kids.

There will be a memorial service for Hanson on Friday at Preble Street, and the people who remember her and who cared about her will be there to share their stories about the woman they describe as frail and childlike and who couldn’t survive her life on the street.

Most of us won’t be there. We stopped caring a long time ago.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or