Beatrice House, the shelter for homeless single mothers that has become a laboratory for theories on early-childhood education, is teetering under a revolt by the women whose disadvantaged lives are supposed to be turning around.
Sixteen young mothers -- some who have lived in the home for more than a year -- took the bold step this week of calling a meeting of the Beatrice House board of directors to lodge a flurry of complaints about a shelter that is billed as a cut above the run-of-the-mill Toronto hostels where most homeless women stay.
While the shelter opened two years ago claiming to provide training and counselling for mothers and top-notch child care for their children, the women insist there is no programming and many spend their days watching television.
They maintain food is stale and Kool-Aid is often served instead of fruit juice. In the child-care centre, the mothers say, children no older than 5 are restrained with force and being taught about sexual orientation over the mothers' objections. And they accuse staff of routinely threatening mothers with calls to the Children's Aid Society.
"They said there is a program, and there is no program," said Sandra Horsford, 32, the mother of an 18-month-old girl who moved to Beatrice House more than a year ago when the apartment she shared was sold. "The food is very crappy. It's bad food. We have bread right now in the fridge that says June 28 and June 22. Today is July 18. I mean, come on."
Gertrude Ihumze, 25, the mother of three small children, was recruited for Beatrice House from another shelter nine months ago. "I'm just so confused. I don't know which way to follow," she said.
"They promised me housing. They promised me a job. They promised everything. And nothing. Nothing is happening."
The allegations are a stinging blow to a shelter with a high-powered board and the financial and philosophical backing of Fraser Mustard, the Toronto doctor and social-scientist known around the world for his work in calling for early-childhood-development programs to capture the potential of children in their first few years.
Dr. Mustard became the shelter's champion even before Beatrice House opened, imagining it as a place where the cycle of disadvantage of poor, little-educated mothers raising children with the same fate could be stopped in its tracks.
Only two months ago, Beatrice House was hand-picked by the Ontario government for a one-time $1.3-million grant.
But John Loosemore, a Toronto lawyer and Beatrice House director, said the board had hired an independent consultant who would allow the mothers to air their grievances over the next few weeks, and a plan would be developed once all allegations are on the table.
"I think it will be an expeditious process. We don't want to leave concerns unaddressed, and everything will be addressed in an appropriate fashion in due course," Mr. Loosemore said.
"I know there's been a lot of hype and if you've seen any of the print materials, there's a spin on them that sounds like something is out of control. I don't think that's the case, but I'm not going to prejudge what [the consultant]will find. Some of the things I've heard and seen written I know are not true, but I don't really want to get into that discussion at this stage."
For two years, Beatrice House has operated out of a sprawling Workers Safety and Insurance Board building in Downsview. In a few weeks, it will move to a stately, three-storey brick building that until a year ago was the Hughes Junior Public School.
Parents remain bitter about the Toronto District School Board's abrupt move to close the school and send 250 children outside the district, and have locked horns with the board over its move to award the lease to Beatrice House over a nearby Catholic School.
Sensing supporters for their campaign against Beatrice House, eight of the mothers appeared unannounced on the doorstep of parent activist Suzanne Stanley last week to plead their case.