She called herself “Maria,” but also used the name Carmen. Approximately 29 years ago, government workers came to her home in Hoboken and took her children away. She had a nervous breakdown, ended up in the streets, and had been wandering around the mile-square city since then – until last month, when she went into septic shock in the train station and passed away.
Those are the details gleaned from friends, former acquaintances, and hospital staff workers after the Reporter ran information about the 61-year-old woman’s death last weekend.
In last Sunday’s newspaper, a friend who knew the short, curly-haired woman from the streets wrote an essay arguing that “Maria’s death was preventable and Maria’s suffering was unnecessary. Guaranteed, there will be more homeless related deaths until we, as a community, become a cohesive and assertive force for immediate action.”
The diminutive Maria was a familiar sight for many years. She often walked with an umbrella even in sunny weather, and sometimes wore pajama bottoms. She slept in ATM alcoves, cleaned herself up in the Hoboken train terminal ladies’ room, and spent hours in Dunkin’ Donuts filling notebooks with her writing. She often stared into space but looked up and said a quiet “Thank you” to anyone who gave her money.
Maria’s daughter finally was told on Wednesday that her mother had died.
That is, until she died on Nov. 28 and became the subject of an essay in this newspaper last weekend.
Memories of Maria
A few people read the essay and responded last week. One was Union City resident Gabriel Murillo.
Murillo said he had gone to elementary school with Maria’s oldest daughter. He noted that Maria and her three children used to attend church every Sunday at 9 a.m. and were a normal family until the children were removed from the house.
“I just want to let people know that she had a family. She had a life,” said Murillo, 41.
Murillo said he had reached out by e-mail over the years to Maria’s oldest daughter in Philadelphia to let her know of her mother’s situation, but had not gotten a response. He said he didn’t know what the children were told, or why they were taken away from Maria three decades ago.
“We were born two days apart,” Murillo said of himself and Maria’s daughter. “Her mom and my mom put us together at the maternity ward. She had three children. She lived at 909 Clinton St. The kids went to Our Lady of Grace in Hoboken. This was a gorgeous woman. We have pictures of her. She was admired by every man in Hoboken. What we know is, the state came to her house and took her children. That’s when she went nuts. The minute they took the children, she went into the street.”
Murillo said that one of the last things he remembers before Maria took to the streets was that Maria called his mother and told her that her children had weapons to protect themselves if anyone tried to take them away. But he was not sure it was true.
He also remembered that at some point before that, Maria’s husband was furious at her one day.
Over the last 29 years, according to Murillo, he and his mother saw Maria on the streets and tried to reach out.
“In the beginning, when she first took to the streets, she for some reason hated everybody,” he said. “She wouldn’t talk to us; she wouldn’t talk to my mom. She would say some stuff and just keep walking. As the years went by, she asked me several times if she could come home with us, that she needed help.”
He added, “My mom can’t stop crying. She feels responsible, but she really isn’t.”
Who she was
Murillo said Maria’s real name was Minerva Quinones. (However, according to others, while homeless she had used the names “Maria” and “Carmen.”)
According to representatives from Hoboken University Medical Center, where she died on Nov. 28, Maria was 61.
The hospital said they were not sure where her belongings are. Usually, she would walk around with one shopping bag.
Maria’s situation became more dire in the last few years, when she wore heavy, yellowing bandages on her short legs. In the last two months, those who saw her, including a reporter, detected a strong odor from the bandages.
Some observers wondered why Maria was not forced by police or social workers into more lasting treatment. State laws say that a person who is a danger to herself or others can be forced into mental health treatment.
However, Joan Quigley, a local assemblywoman who is also the full-time spokeswoman for Hoboken University Medical Center, said last week that various people tried to help Maria over the years.
Getting her help
Quigley and the hospital’s director of social work, Sue Costomiris, said that the hospital had tried to treat Maria in the past, and she was reluctant to accept the help.
“She was here on one admission and we started the process to full guardianship,” Costomiris said. “She stayed in the hospital long enough that her legs did heal. She did take oral antibiotics, although she didn’t want IV antibiotics. She said it was against her beliefs. She eventually signed out of the hospital. In order to keep her against her will, we would have to show strong proof that the patient was in imminent danger. She was told to come by the wound center daily for dressing changes. She promised to get care.”
Maria was also in the Hoboken Homeless Shelter at Third and Bloomfield streets for a period last winter.
“We worked pretty closely with the shelter when she was agreeable with the care,” Costomiris said. “She was rather guarded about herself. There were short windows of opportunity when she was here, but we couldn’t control what she would do when she left.”
Quigley said Maria was “a little afraid of authority” and thus would not always cooperate.
Shelter Director Jaclyn Cherubini said she was not sure she could comment on the specifics of one of the shelter guests.
Quigley and Costomiris were able to speak about some aspects of the case because certain information that had been protected under federal HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) laws no longer applied after Maria passed away.
Quigley said that before Maria died, she was found at the PATH station and brought in by police in septic shock.
Septic shock is a serious condition that results when an infection becomes severe and the body’s blood pressure drops. Septic shock is a major cause of death for patients in intensive care.
Could anyone have forced her to get help?
New Jersey, like most states, has rules outlining when authorities can intervene to force someone to get medical help. Generally, a person has to be a clear danger to himself or others in order to be forced into treatment.
These laws are meant to strike the often difficult balance between protecting the civil rights of the mentally ill and pushing them to get help.
In the last two months, any observer could have noticed Maria’s case worsening. However, if she did not seek help on her own, it would have been up to an observer to contact a hospital or police to take action, or for one of those authorities to observe the gravity of the situation and start the process.
Murillo said that Maria had told his mother she had sought help. “What she told my mom [was], she did go to the hospital several times,” he said. “[She said] they would not admit her at any time; they would see her and let her go. The shelters would not take her because of her illness. That’s the life she’s been living. It’s gotten progressively worse.”
Hospital didn’t know about children
When the newspaper first contacted the hospital about Maria’s death, Quigley said that the hospital had found a relative in Puerto Rico who was coming to give Maria a funeral.
Costomiris said that four or five times per year, the hospital gets a patient who does not have any next of kin, or whose next of kin must be found. She said the staff tries to find relatives while the body remains in the hospital morgue.
“If those inquiries don’t work,” she said, “we go to the Office of the County Counsel to see if there is any way of locating any next of kin, if there are assets that need to be put into an estate and assigned to an attorney.”
The hospital was unaware until the middle of last week that Maria had children, or that her name was actually Minerva.
The day after Murillo first contacted the Reporter, he made further efforts to reach out to Maria’s children. Since he had e-mailed her daughter Elizabeth over the years and gotten no response, he tried contacting the daughter’s children through Facebook.
Maria’s daughter’s children gave her the message, and she called him immediately. That was when she learned her mother had died.
“She was crying,” Murillo said on Wednesday. He said that the daughter had been told over the years that her mother was being taken care of. He also said the daughter never had gotten his e-mails.
Murillo let the daughter follow up with his mother, who knew Maria best.
“I’m just upset at how the system failed [Maria],” Murillo said. “As a friend, I failed her too, but I don’t want to take the blame for everything. We all have families. I wish we could have done more. It is what it is. I just wanted people to know who she really is. She had children. She had family. She had a life. This is just tragic.”
Daughter reaches out
On Friday, Maria’s daughter explained what she remembered of her mother.
“The last time I saw her was in 1996,” Elizabeth said. “She was living in Puerto Rico. Her mother was taking care of her. I brought my three children, so she got to see them. She loved kids.”
But Elizabeth said her mother showed signs of mental illness. She said that she and her grandmother tried to push her to get treatment, but could not.
Elizabeth said she tried to coax her mother to come back to the United States with her, but was unsuccessful. After that, her relatives in Puerto Rico continually told her that her mother was there and was being taken care of.
However, another relative told her they had seen her mother in New York.
She said that for the last 12 years, she and her two younger brothers searched for her, but could not find her.
She said that Maria del Carmen was actually her mother’s sister’s name.
She said that when she saw her mother for the last time in Puerto Rico, “It was like talking to a body that was there, but mentally she was not there. She would just laugh to herself. But she loved children. I could tell you this, she loved to see my kids.”
Elizabeth said she was almost 11 years old when she and her younger brothers were taken away.
“One day, social services came to take us,” she said. “They took my brother to Bayonne, the other one to Jersey City, and myself to Jersey City. My mother came to court with us. The last thing I remember, she said, ‘I have to go make a phone call.’ I looked out the window and she was in a phone booth. Then I saw her walking away, down the street. Once she left, they could place us. They took her out the back and there were cars waiting for us.”
She said that she was never sure why social services took her away. But when asked if her mother had symptoms of mental illness back then, she related some memories.
“When we initially moved to 909 Clinton Street,” she said, “my mother and my father had gotten separated, and they got into huge fights. My father abducted me and tried to take me to Puerto Rico. When I got back, my mom wasn’t acting the same. She said she could hear voices, that people were watching her from upstairs in the ceiling. There were cables behind the apartment building, and she used to cut the cables. It just kept progressing. It came to a point where she stopped sending myself and my brothers to school.”
She said she saw her mother on and off through the years.
“When we came to Puerto Rico she was very proud of her appearance,” Elizabeth said. “She used to walk like she was a model, like she was a princess, and that’s the way I used to see her. She was very proud of her appearance. And she would write verses of the Bible in a notebook. She would write the same names over and over. She used to write her name out; she would write her sister’s name, names of the Bible. She would write ‘Michael.’ She had the most beautiful handwriting.”
She said she would never have allowed her mother to stay in the streets or remain ill if she had known where she was.
She said she was devastated when Gabriel contacted her last week.
“When he told me, I couldn’t speak,” she said. “It’s hard for me to talk about it. When I read that article, it hit me so hard. I just want to say, I appreciate anyone who helped my mother. If I was not there, I appreciate that someone was.”
Other reader responses
The recent essay about “Maria” brought additional reader response last week. One person mailed an anonymous letter to the newspaper, handwritten on yellow lined paper. It said, “First, her name was not Maria; it was Carmen. When she was younger she lived in an apartment with her two children with no husband. The state came, took her children away; she lost her apartment and her children. She had a breakdown and lived in the streets. People did try to help her... Do not write that she was intelligent; she was not in her right mind. She was also not a saint. I have been living in Hoboken 50 years. I knew Carmen when she was young and pretty, but she loved her men. She had choices and a lot of help, which she refused. Do not blame us for her bad choices.”
Another person e-mailed to say that the pharmacy at Fourth and Washington streets often gave her free items.
And a Hoboken resident stopped into the newspaper office to say that he had seen Maria often. He said he now worries about a homeless woman who he says sleeps at the funeral home across from Hoboken University Medical Center each night, even in the rain. He said he hopes someone will find a way to do more to help her.
And a homeless organization in Massachusetts said they read the essay about Maria on-line and wanted to use it in their website.
“All of us at MHSA were very moved by the editorial, given that our focus is on advocating for permanent supportive housing for people just like Maria,” wrote a spokeswoman. “In fact, we have a physician on staff who treats homeless patients and guides our advocacy and strong belief that housing is an important medical intervention.” – CM Countywide group to hold tribute to homeless who died
This coming Monday, Dec. 21 – the first day of winter and the longest night of the year – a coalition led by Jersey City Episcopal Community Development Corporation and the Church of the Incarnation will host Hudson County’s first interfaith Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. The service will be held at the Church of the Incarnation at 68 Storms Ave., Jersey City, at 1 p.m.
The memorial service will remember friends and loved ones who have passed away from causes related to homelessness and raise awareness that people are still living and dying on the street.
People are invited to submit the names of deceased homeless persons, invite homeless clients to attend, and contribute or solicit contributions of socks, hats, gloves and scarves. The items will be distributed to homeless guests at the service.
The ceremony will also include a tribute to the late Deacon Joe Del Monte, who fed countless homeless people on the streets of Jersey City every week. Del Monte was the founder of St. Francis Workshop, a program that provides food and clothing to the less fortunate out of a storefront in the Lafayette section of the city.
To drop off donations or for further information, please contact them at email@example.com or call 201-604-2600 x. 209.
To comment on this article, e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.hudsonreporter.com.