Shawnta Campbell started a new chapter in her life with the help of Haven Housing’s St. Anne’s Place, an emergency family shelter in north Minneapolis.
Campbell and her three children recently moved out of the shelter into a new home. Her 25th birthday is just days away, and she is on track to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
With her mother’s recent passing, Campbell and her children stayed at the shelter for four months due to a lack of family support. She was also leaving an abusive relationship when she became homeless. Campbell said she felt overwhelmed not having consistent doctors and access to medical care while she was homeless.
A report published by the Minnesota Department of Health and the Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute in January underscores Campbell’s concerns and experience, noting that homelessness worsens a person’s health and shortens their life expectancy. The report also found that there were increased rates of death among homeless people in every racial group.
According to the report, “Minnesota Homeless Mortality Report, 2017-2021”, a 20-year-old person experiencing homelessness has the same likelihood of death as a 50-year-old in the general population. Researchers described the report as “the first systematic look at mortality among people experiencing homelessness who die in Minnesota.”
“I feel like the situation is sad, but I feel like that is honestly the truth,” Campbell said of the report. “I’m not shocked by it, because I feel like people my age are just trying to find guidance. And it’s hard when you have nothing stable in your life.”
The report looked at U.S. Census data, death data from the Minnesota Department of Health’s Office of Vital Records, and homelessness services documented by Homelessness Management Information System. Researchers analyzed five years of data.
“What we see in looking at race and death is that there are increased rates of deaths for every different race ethnicity group among people experiencing homelessness,” said Dr. Katherine Diaz-Vickery, co-director of the Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute and co-principal investigator for the report.
Josh Leopold, senior advisor on Health, Homelessness, and Housing for the Minnesota Department of Health, is also a co-principal investigator for the report.
Black, American Indian, and Hispanic Minnesotans experience higher rates of homelessness than other races, according to the report.
American Indians experiencing homelessness are 1.5 times more likely to die than homeless people of other racial backgrounds, and five times more likely to die than the general population. Eleven percent of people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota identify as American Indian, while they represent less than 1 percent of the state’s general population.
Hispanic people experiencing homelessness had the lowest mortality rate, but it was still 2.7 times higher than the general Hispanic population in Minnesota.
Black Minnesotans who were homeless were 1.5 times more likely to die than Blacks in the general population. Whites who were homeless were 2.6 times more likely to die than their counterparts in the general population.
Asians who were homeless were 3.9 more times more likely to die than Asians in the state’s general population. Homeless people who identified as multi-race were 5.9 times more likely to die than that same group in the general population.
“What we’ve seen in the last few years is an increasing number of people who are staying outside or staying in places not meant for human habitation, which just makes them more at risk for death from a variety of causes,” said Diaz-Vickery. “And what this data really tells me is that housing is necessary, but it’s not going to solve all of the challenging health impacts of having experienced homelessness.”
Substance use was one of the most common causes of death for people experiencing homelessness, the report found. One in three deaths among the homeless were caused by substance abuse, compared to one in ten deaths among the general population.
Campbell said tracking old medical records, switching healthcare providers, and visiting new doctors while she and her children were homeless was stressful and frustrating.
“I feel like a lot of times with homelessness, we experience things that we have to start all over with, so it’s never like we’re getting consistent care,” she said.
Receiving prescriptions and medical paperwork are major struggles when you don’t have a permanent mailing address, she added.
Campbell said she bonded with the other mothers at the Haven Housing shelter and built a strong support system. The organization focuses on providing emergency shelter for women, nonbinary people, and families, with a goal of advocating for systemic change to reduce race and gender disparities in housing.
“What we also know is that the report puts data behind our beliefs that shelter saves life, and housing ends homelessness,” said Lissa Jones-Lofgren, executive director* of Haven Housing. “It also backs up our idea and our belief that housing is healthcare.”
Jones-Lofgren said she has witnessed the disparity in healthcare for the homeless firsthand. Her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 20, but she had a home, was employed, and had healthcare coverage. At the same time, Jones-Lofgren said she knew a woman* from Mississippi who was homeless, had four children, and was on medicaid. The woman also had the same doctor as Jones-Lofgren’s sister.
“I saw firsthand how my sister, thankfully who’s still here, was able to get the medications and prescriptions and all of the support she needed,” Jones-Lofgren said. “And how the very same cancer doctor who wanted desperately to help this other woman was–hands basically tied by his inability to break through the healthcare barriers for her, and she died.
“I will never forget that, and it is critical that we understand that by ending homelessness, we can impact mortality.”
An advisory council of advocates and people with experience in homelessness helped with the findings before the report was released. Jonda Crum, a certified peer recovery specialist, shared her experience with homelessness with researchers.
Crum, 46, has been sober for more than six years and worked in the recovery field for about four years. Crum said she was homeless and suffered from addiction for most of her adult life.
“I know quite a few people that have passed from addiction. I know a few, when I was homeless, that passed away from being homeless. And so, I’ve been through a lot of, and I’ve seen a lot of what happens on the streets,” said Crum. “I just want to try my best to give people a voice and let it come from somebody that does know what it’s like to be there.”
Crum said she was mistreated multiple times by healthcare professionals while seeking medical treatment because of the stigma associated with homelessness and addiction.
Even now, she said, healthcare professionals treat her differently and mistreat her when she tells them about her history with addiction and homelessness. Crum said medical professionals ignore her, dismiss her symptoms and concerns, and say hurtful things.
Crum and researchers expressed hope that the report will be used by policymakers and service providers to identify and close the gaps in reducing homelessness.
“I will be talking about this report as I meet with legislators and others about what’s in the governor and lieutenant governor’s budget, and why the items that we have in [the budget] are so important and how they can impact the results that we see in this report,” said Cathy ten Brooke, Assistant Commissioner and Executive Director of the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness.
*UPDATE: This story has been updated with Lissa Jones-Lofgren’s title as executive director of Haven Housing.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated that a woman from Mississippi was part of Haven Housing’s program.