03/17/2016 15:59 EDT | Updated 03/18/2017 01:12 EDT

Under pressure to confront homelessness,Liberals point to social housing promise

OTTAWA — The federal Liberals have no interest in backing away from an election promise to spend more on affordable housing, says Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu.

As communities across Canada engage in a first-ever federally organized and detailed census of homelessness, pressure on the government to act is mounting as community leaders better understand the stubbornness of the problem.

The Liberals have vowed to spend $20 billion over the next 10 years on what the party calls "social" infrastructure, which includes shelters and affordable housing, as part of a broader commitment to infrastructure spending that was a central component of the party's election platform.

The details of how much the government will spend in the sector next year will be outlined in next week's budget.

The promised money has raised hopes that places like Thunder Bay, which Hajdu represents, will turn the corner on a chronic battle with poverty and homelessness. The homeless count revealed 17 homeless people died there last year.

Hajdu says the money should begin to cut long waiting lists for affordable housing.

"And those waiting lists as they reduce, will alleviate the incredible burden on all of these largely not-for-profit organizations that are making do with a partial funding model of government money and fundraising money and donations," Hajdu said in a recent interview.

Next week's budget, the first for the Liberals since they took office after the October election, is expected to detail how much of the extra infrastructure money will be available to communities and how they can use it. The Liberal campaign promise was for an extra $5.1 billion in infrastructure spending this year, with $1.7 billion destined for social infrastructure.

"We've made a historic commitment in terms of money to social infrastructure. That commitment is true and we're not backing away from our campaign commitment whatsoever," Hajdu said, who used to run Thunder Bay's largest shelter.

"Will I be able to solve everything single-handedly in the next year? No. Will this government? No, but we have this very strong commitment to making sure that the most vulnerable amongst us are supported and I am very committed to making sure their voice is heard at that table."

Anti-poverty advocates and political leaders believe that extra federal spending on affordable housing will go a long way to getting people off the street, out of shelters and into homes.

In Nanaimo, for instance, that city's census of the homeless population on Feb. 9 showed that being unable to pay the rent was the top reason people were homeless, even though the local housing market is more affordable than Vancouver or Victoria.

"It is still hard to find a market-rent apartment for what people get on welfare or disability and that leads to many people living in the shelters and frequenting the food bank," says Signy Madden, executive director of the United Way of Central and Northern Vancouver Island.

Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs says the city is doing its best to tackle social issues, but needs help from other levels of government. He looks to Alberta where millions in provincial and federal funding helped Medicine Hat eliminate chronic and episodic homelessness.

"If I had those kinds of dollars, we could eradicate homelessness in Thunder Bay. The problem is the province has no money and the feds need to step up to the plate," Hobbs says.

Alina Turner, a fellow at the University of Calgary's school of public policy, says cities need flexibility with any federal funds so they can target local needs. Ideally, a local organization or a collective of organizations would figure out how best to use the money rather than the federal government dictating where it must be spent, she says.

"Having said that, government does need to stick to evidence-based practices so it's not a free-for-all," Turner says.

That requires cities to have good data on what works and doesn't work locally, and good co-ordination within the system, says Turner, who has studied how cities like Medicine Hat and Calgary have reduced their homeless populations.

Many cities are in the midst of collecting detailed data on their homeless populations for the first time. The federally-organized point-in-time count, essentially a census of the homeless population, is ongoing until the end of April with 30 communities taking part.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press