A former federal cabinet minister is coming out of retirement to lead a new research project aimed at helping homeless people who suffer from mental illness in Moncton.

Claudette Bradshaw, who was the minister responsible for homelessness from 1999 to 2004, had stepped out of the spotlight after spending 41 years in public and community service.

But she said this project caught her attention.

The project will pluck 100 people from the streets, offer them a furnished apartment and all the professional help they need for the next three years.

Bradshaw said she hopes this research project will prove there is a way to help people with mental illness.

"So that by 2013, we'll be able to say to you that for people who are chronically mentally ill, homeless, we can take them from the street, and we can put them in housing with support staff and we can bring them to their full potential," she said. 

The Moncton project is part of a larger study by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Besides Moncton, the $110-million "Housing First" study will roll out in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal.

The project is being led by former senator Michael Kirby, who now chairs the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counsellors and a home economist will give participants whatever help they need during their participation in the project.

Bradshaw said people are already being interviewed to be part of the study.

The first three of the participants will be in their apartments by the end of November.

Bradshaw said a conversation with a man who has already gone through the program in Toronto led her to believe the project will be a success.

"He says, 'You know, when I first moved in and they gave me a choice where to live, I lived in a real bad area because that's where I fitted.' But he says, 'Now after four years, I think I'm going to ask them to move me with a little bit more of the rich people,'" Bradshaw said. "He says, 'I think I'm ready for that now.'

"Wouldn't it be nice if all of our 100 people, at the end could say wow, look at where I'm at now and I've reached my potential and that's what life is about is what is your potential."

'I owe it personally to Ashley Smith'

Bradshaw said the decision was not difficult to end her retirement abruptly once she discussed the project with its organizers approached her about the initiative.

Along with her career in helping the disadvantaged, Bradshaw said she had a personal reason for getting involved with this particular initiative.

"I feel that I owe it personally to Ashley Smith because of my experience with Ashley Smith," Bradshaw said.

Bradshaw is referring to Ashley Smith, the 19-year-old Moncton woman who killed herself in an Ontario prison two years ago.

She tied a ligature around her neck while in a segregation cell in an Ontario prison. A federal investigator said Canada's corrections and health systems failed her.

Bradshaw met Smith when she was at a New Brunswick youth jail. After an afternoon with a group of girls, Bradshaw said she was about to leave when Smith asked her for a hug, which she obliged.

Months after that, Bradshaw said Smith's mother stopped her in a Moncton shopping mall and asked for a hug. Smith's mother told Bradshaw how her daughter said the former Liberal cabinet minister gave the best hug.

Bradshaw said when she stood in front of Smith's coffin after her death, she told herself that the teenager would not be forgotten.

"When they called me to do this, I did not hesitate long to get out of retirement. So was I influenced by Ashley? What are the chances that I would be at Sears that morning?" Bradshaw said.

"Did Ashley die for nothing? I don't think so."