Mortality Among Unsheltered Homeless Adults in Boston, Massachusetts, 2000-2009

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Abstract

Importance

Previous studies have shown high mortality rates among homeless people in general, but little is known about the patterns of mortality among “rough sleepers,” the subgroup of unsheltered urban homeless people who avoid emergency shelters and primarily sleep outside.

Objectives

To assess the mortality rates and causes of death for a cohort of unsheltered homeless adults from Boston, Massachusetts.

Design, Setting, and Participants

A 10-year prospective cohort study (2000-2009) of 445 unsheltered homeless adults in Boston, Massachusetts, who were seen during daytime street and overnight van clinical visits performed by the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program’s Street Team during 2000. Data used to describe the unsheltered homeless cohort and to document causes of death were gathered from clinical encounters, medical records, the National Death Index, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health death occurrence files. The study data set was linked to the death occurrence files by using a probabilistic record linkage program to confirm the deaths. Data analysis was performed from May 1, 2015, to September 6, 2016.

Exposure

Being unsheltered in an urban setting.

Main Outcomes and Measures

Age-standardized all-cause and cause-specific mortality rates and age-stratified incident rate ratios that were calculated for the unsheltered adult cohort using 2 comparison groups: the nonhomeless Massachusetts adult population and an adult homeless cohort from Boston who slept primarily in shelters.

Results

Of 445 unsheltered adults in the study cohort, the mean (SD) age at enrollment was 44 (11.4) years, 299 participants (67.2%) were non-Hispanic white, and 72.4% were men. Among the 134 individuals who died, the mean (SD) age at death was 53 (11.4) years. The all-cause mortality rate for the unsheltered cohort was almost 10 times higher than that of the Massachusetts population (standardized mortality rate, 9.8; 95% CI, 8.2-11.5) and nearly 3 times higher than that of the adult homeless cohort (standardized mortality rate, 2.7; 95% CI, 2.3-3.2). Non-Hispanic black individuals had more than half the rate of death compared with non-Hispanic white individuals, with a rate ratio of 0.4 (95% CI, 0.2-0.7; P < .001). The most common causes of death were noncommunicable diseases (eg, cancer and heart disease), alcohol use disorder, and chronic liver disease.

Conclusions and Relevance

Mortality rates for unsheltered homeless adults in this study were higher than those for the Massachusetts adult population and a sheltered adult homeless cohort with equivalent services. This study suggests that this distinct subpopulation of homeless people merits special attention to meet their unique clinical and psychosocial needs.

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