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Saint Louis University Public Law Review

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Rights-based approaches to advocacy on behalf of homeless persons have long sought to vindicate important dignitary, liberty, and equality interests, as well as establish to entitlements to housing, mental health, substance abuse, and other services. This advocacy has had some success in shaping the systems that define the interaction between homeless persons and the state. Rights paradigms, however, can be undermined by the day-to-day reality of the lives of homeless individuals and families that are often shaped by profound need less for protection from the state than for meaningful support, and entitlement advocacy remains circumscribed by the reality of severely limited resources at all levels of government. Given these constraints, this essay argues that rights at the center of homeless advocacy can serve an additional function. The values underlying core rights asserted on behalf of those without shelter can provide a functional tool for providers of services to homeless individuals and families. Deploying rights in this way would serve less to hone an adversarial relationship between clients and service providers, and more as a set of guiding principles for program design and implementation. This essay accordingly argues that a self-conscious rights advocacy can help shape the systems that support homeless individuals and families, outlining core norms that advocates have asserted on the front lines of fighting for the rights of homeless persons and demonstrating how this is working in practice through examples from recent important developments in the field.