The Legal Implications of COVID-19 on the Homeless

March 30, 2020 by Benjamin Kamelhar

by Paulina Piasecki

With the recent outbreak of COVID-19, the World Health Organization’s declaring a pandemic,[1] and President Trump declaring a state of national emergency,[2] it is clear the nation and the world are facing a massive crisis. It is unclear, however, how this pandemic will affect our nation’s most vulnerable: the homeless. It is also uncertain how the United States government will respond if the outbreak of COVID-19 becomes worse.

While state and local governments are primarily tasked with maintaining public health and controlling the spread of diseases in the state borders, the federal government, through the use of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), also has the authority to monitor and respond to the spread of a communicable disease, like COVID-19.[3] This authority is granted to the CDC through the Public Health Service Act[4] and a series of executive orders.[5] The orders make clear that the CDC have the option to exercise quarantine[6] and isolation[7] powers to:

severe acute respiratory syndromes, which are diseases that are associated with fever and signs and symptoms of pneumonia or other respiratory illness, are capable of being transmitted from person to person, and that either are causing, or have the potential to cause, a pandemic, or, upon infection, are highly likely to cause mortality or serious morbidity if not properly controlled.[8]

A plain reading of the executive order supports the conclusion that COVID-19 may fit that description. If such drastic measures were warranted amid the current outbreak, this means the CDC would have the power to exercise and impose quarantine or isolation on citizens in the United States. While civil liberties might be the last thing on anyone’s mind during a time like this, mandatory quarantine and isolation powers impose severe restrictions on an individual’s Fourteen Amendment Due Process rights, especially when they are not carried out in the least restrictive manner possible. My growing concern is that this issue is most applicable to the people experiencing poverty and homelessness across the nation.

Some experts say it is “inevitable that the coronavirus will hit the homeless community.”[9] While the solution that is currently imposed is to practice “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” if someone is feeling sick, the homeless are most likely unaware of these procedures and unable to implement them.[10] Why is that the case? In general, the homeless have weakened immune systems due to: “lack of sleep, poor nutrition and extreme levels of stress just to meet their daily needs.”[11] The homeless are also at risk because they are in close proximity with others and lack the ability to regularly practice hygiene,[12] especially now with the closing of public restrooms. Many of the homeless do not have access to hand sanitizer or hand-washing facilities on a daily basis. A significant portion of the homeless population also struggles with mental illness.[13] This alone may make it more difficult for those members of the homeless population to stay informed and attempt to practice proper hygiene.[14]

This does not mean there are no solutions. It is important to convey the risks of coronavirus to everyone in the population. That starts with communication. The CDC is currently encouraging workers to place “signs around shelters to help reiterate proper hand hygiene and cough etiquette.”[15] The biggest problem, however, is addressing how the homeless population will self-quarantine when they do not have a home and likely cannot reach any level of medical care.[16] We should, however, remain hopeful that the virus will not spread at an alarming rate among the homeless population.

If COVID-19 continues to spread at its current rate, the CDC may turn to the possible solution of mandating mandatory quarantine and isolation. I argue, however, that this solution would violate Due Process rights. Subjecting the homeless to a state of forced quarantine and isolation is a constitutional violation of Due Process rights. A mandatory quarantine for homeless people would have the effect of detaining someone against their will because they do not have the ability to make the choice of self-quarantine or isolation without access to a home. These civil liberties should not be infringed upon, regardless of socioeconomic status. Pandemic or not, this violation would be a breach of constitutional rights that are guaranteed to all citizens of the United States. One can only hope that if the state of things becomes so unmanageable, the CDC and federal government will turn to a solution that is humane and does not impose restrictions on the fundamental rights of the citizens of this nation.



[1] See Jackie Salo, World Health Organization declares coronavirus a pandemic, New York Post (Mar. 11, 2020, 12:49 PM),

[2] See Anita Kumar, Trump declares national emergency in latest bid to combat coronavirus, Politico (Mar. 13, 2020, 2:00 PM),

[3] See State Quarantine and Isolation Statutes, Nat’l Conference of State Legislatures (Feb. 27, 2020),

[4] 42 U.S.C.S. § 201.

[5] Exec. Order No. 13674, 79 Fed. Reg. 45671 (July 31, 2014).

[6] Quarantine is defined as “[c]ompulsory separation, including restriction of movement, of people who potentially have been exposed to a contagious disease, until it can be determined whether they have become sick or no longer pose a risk to others. This determination could be made, for example, based on the time elapsed from their potential exposure. See State Quarantine and Isolation Statutes, Nat’l Conference of State Legislatures (Mar. 27, 2020),

[7] Isolation is defined as “[s]eparation of people known or suspected (via signs, symptoms or laboratory criteria) to be infected with a contagious disease from those who are not sick to prevent them from transmitting the disease to others.” See id.

[8]Exec. Order No. 13674, 79 Fed. Reg. 45671 (July 31, 2014).

[9] Emily Shapiro, Coronavirus and the Homeless: Why they’re especially at risk, ways to stop a spread ‘like wildfire,’ ABC News (Mar. 11, 2020, 4:14 PM),

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.