Minnesota Department of Health report finds death rates are higher for people experiencing homelessness. How some agencies are trying to help.

This week’s brutal cold is difficult for all of us —but especially punishing for anyone living outside, or in a tent.

“It’s pretty intense, you know?” declares Damon Applebee, of Minneapolis. “It’s, what can you say, being out in the cold is being out in the cold.”

We recently met Applebee at ‘Homeward Bound’ — a shelter in the Little Earth neighborhood.

He considers himself lucky to be indoors.

“I’m dealing with being homeless,” Applebee says. “This place actually helps people get off the streets, and get into places, which is awesome.”

A new report by the health department sheds light on how risky living unsheltered during a Minnesota winter can be.

It’s not just dangerous cold creating serious health concerns — rates of everything, from heart disease, cancer, and even flu are higher.

“The risk of death was three times higher for people who’ve experienced homelessness compared to the general population,” says Josh Leopold, MDH’s senior advisor on health, housing, and homelessness. “Chronic health conditions, like heart disease and diabetes — people experiencing homelessness were at much greater risk of dying from these conditions.”  

The report says on any given night, 8,000 Minnesotans experience homelessness.

For those without shelter, the single digit temperatures add to the misery.

“Especially when it’s cold, there’s all these other concerns, such as frostbite and other issues,” notes Danielle Werder, area manager with the Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness.  “When it gets very, very cold like this, we do everything we can to make sure there’s enough shelter beds to meet the needs of people asking for them.”

The MDH report’s findings are alarming.

It says among those experiencing homelessness:

  • 20-year-olds have the same rate of death as 50-year-olds in the general population.
  • Native American people have five times higher rates of death.
  • One of three deaths are caused by drug abuse.

“The ones where the risk was greatest were substance-abuse related deaths,” Leopold says. “Particularly opioids, including fentanyl and the mix of fentanyl and other drugs like methamphetamine.”

He says unsheltered people are also at much greater risk of dying from chronic health issues like heart disease and diabetes.

“The number of preventable deaths that we’re seeing for people experiencing homelessness is a tragedy,” Leopold explains. “The nature of being homeless and not having a stable place to store your medicine or to sleep, or any number of things — see a doctor. I think we know having stable housing is a really vital component to healthcare.”

But agencies like Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness are trying to help.

The ‘Homeless to Housing’ team, working with Metro Transit, is trying to connect people with shelter services.

Werder says the team has found housing for 360 people in the past year.

She says they also help those without shelter to locate important documents like birth certificates and social security cards — and when needed, help them to navigate the court system.

The idea, Werder says, is to remove barriers keeping people out of housing, not just in the cold weather months, but all year around — without a one-size-fits-all approach.

“What is your community? Where would you feel most comfortable?” she says. “We know it’s out there, we know it’s happening and we know housing is the solution — and so we’re really, urgently, urgently out there, working to get more people into housing as quickly as we can.”