The most effective action most of us can take during the COVID-19 pandemic is to hunker down at home. But what if you can’t go home?

During any natural disaster – and the current outbreak qualifies in spirit, if not in definition – it’s always the most vulnerable among us who suffer the most.

Mainers who are homeless and Mainers who are incarcerated are particularly susceptible to viral outbreaks. Their needs are all but ignored by most on a good day. At this time, even more than at others, that could be disastrous.

Jails across Maine have reported ramping up cleaning and disinfecting regimens, and are limiting programming and visitations to cut back on person-to-person contact.

But there’s more officials can do. Even in the best of circumstances, Maine jails hold many more people than can be justified in the name of public safety. Most are there awaiting trial and are only incarcerated because they cannot afford bail.

Maeghan Maloney, the district attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties, told the Kennebec Journal she is seeking cash bail only if the person presents a risk to public safety. Additionally, she asked sheriffs in her two counties to issue court summons instead of arrests whenever possible.

Both ideas would be good policy in normal times, and they make even more sense now. That’s particularly true now that courts have been closed at least through May 1, meaning more people will be held in jail longer awaiting trial.

The homeless, too, are particularly vulnerable. It is difficult for the homeless to avoid crowds if they want to access shelters and other services. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended no gatherings of more than 50 people; Preble Street in Portland points out it serves 300 people at each meal. In that case and others, the homeless need more room, so they can spread out.

What’s more, there is nowhere for them to go if they need to be quarantined.

Many of the homeless are in family units. Many work. All get around in public. The potential for infection and the absence of quarantine space are a threat not only to individual health but also to the wider effort to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Preble Street and other organizations say they are taking steps to limit the potential for transmission of the virus. The city of Portland said it is working on establishing separate space for quarantine. There will likely be need for space in all of Maine’s largest communities.

We also have to make sure not to add to the ranks of homeless Mainers. Evictions should stop, and there has to be support for people living paycheck-to-paycheck, for whom this crisis could lead quickly to hunger or their losing a place to live.

The coronavirus outbreak asks each of us to think of the needs of the community at large as much as we do our own. That includes people who are homeless and people who are incarcerated. They often are forgotten, but we must not forget them in the coming weeks.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.