Eligibility means the state of having the right to do or obtain something through satisfaction of the appropriate conditions (my emphasis added).
Entitlement means the fact of having a right to something; the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment (again my emphasis added).
There are subtle differences between the two. Just because you can have something when the conditions are appropriate doesn’t mean you have the fact of having a right or are deserving of privileges or special treatment. Put another way, lots of people are eligible for shelter, but that doesn’t mean they have the right to shelter (unless you live in a right to shelter jurisdiction). Or consider this: lots of veterans are eligible for SSVF, but that doesn’t mean it is their absolute right to get SSVF.
Why does any or all of this matter?
In the era of Coordinated Entry systems of support are being completely transformed. Prioritization challenges us to think through which people will be served in which order based upon two factors: 1) who is eligible for what; and, 2) who is entitled to what. When those two things get confused or treated interchangeably, the entire approach to prioritization gets messier than it need be. Furthermore, the order with which people get served changes as entitlement can trump eligibility.
It also matters because the experience of the end user is often framed by their own beliefs. Does a person who is homeless feel they are entitled to receive certain services in a certain order? Or does a person who is homeless feel they are eligible to receive services and the order will be influenced by other factors?
When there is confusion between eligibility and entitlement it can lead to frustration, anger and what seems like picking winners and losers in the service delivery matrix. For a system of care to work properly, though, we need service providers and end users to understand that discretion is inherently woven into how a community has prioritized service attainment. Discretion does not mean side doors or jumping the queue. What it means is that there has been a transparent manner by which the community has decided the order with which all people who are eligible will be served, which may take into account how entitlement fits when it is warranted to do so.
Taken too far, this can all sound exceptionally harsh – just because you can have something doesn’t mean you will get something. Nonetheless, it is this very transparency that makes it possible to defend why, say, a person who is chronically homeless will be served ahead of a person who is not chronically homeless even though they both may be eligible for the same housing program.
Do yourself a favor in your community and have discussions about eligibility versus entitlement as you tweak your coordinated entry systems, as you design your housing and support programs, and as you discuss service options with program participants. This won’t result in everyone being happy. But it will (hopefully) get people to a common understanding of how decisions are made regarding program access.