Homeward Bound is removing the barriers between single mothers and a new career

The program provides housing, childcare and mentorship so women can focus on their studies. This month, three participants will graduate from college and one is already employed.

Inas Khayto lives across the street from the entrance to Jackson Park, and the creek flows right by her apartment building. Her two sons are six and nine, and they “spend most of their time” in the park exploring with their uncle, she says. “They know the park very well, so they take me and they guide me.”

Khayto and her sons came to Canada in 2016, when the youngest was only a baby. Sponsored and supported by the congregation at Saint Alphonsus Liguori Church, the Khayto family were among the 350 Syrian newcomers who settled in Peterborough in 2016 and 2017.

Since settling in Peterborough, Khayto has learned English and adapted to life in a new cultural context. Later this month, she will graduate from Fleming College with a diploma in early childhood education, and she already has a new job at Compass Early Learning and Care. 

“I’m proud of myself,” she says, noting the additional challenges that come with postsecondary study in a second language. While taking ownership of the achievement, Khayto also acknowledges the community support she’s received along the way, including from a new housing and employment program for single mothers in Peterborough called Homeward Bound.

Homeward Bound is a four-year wraparound program for mother-led families who are facing inadequate housing or homelessness. Moms in the program get access to affordable apartments in Malcolm Court, one of the Peterborough Housing Corporation’s new developments. They also receive life skills coaching, free college tuition, an internship opportunity and help finding work at the end of the program.

Khayto is one of eight women in the first cohort of Homeward Bound Peterborough. She and her sons moved into their new apartment in early 2020, alongside the seven other families.

“It was a great opportunity for me to get support from Homeward Bound and to feel a sense of belonging to the community,” Khayto says.

Maisie Watson, the manager of Homeward Bound Peterborough, says the idea is to set women up for success in their studies by minimizing distractions and barriers such as housing uncertainty and the high cost of childcare.

“All the systems work against” single mothers trying to stabilize their housing and study for a career, Watson says. “To try to pull together childcare, a place to live, education, all that stuff. It doesn’t work very easily for single women.”

Homeward Bound pulls all those pieces together in one place, she says. “Then, [the women] can just focus on their studies.”

By locating the eight apartments in the same building and providing on-site childcare, Homeward Bound also provides an opportunity to build community, Watson adds.

“If they hit a little rough spot, they have their cohort to depend on,” she says.

“We support each other,” Khayto says. For example, when Khatyo became a Canadian citizen last summer, the rest of the cohort organized a surprise party to celebrate. “I found all of them outside,” Khayto remembers, “and they were celebrating for me, bringing me gifts and enjoying my happiness.”

And Khatyo brings her own gifts to the cohort. “Inas is a very gracious presence in the group,” Watson says. Sometimes, “people can get excited, and a little off track. Inas is just that calm presence.”

Peterborough’s version of a model established in Toronto

The Homeward Bound model was first launched in Toronto by Woodgreen Community Services in 2004. At that time, the United Way had issued a challenge to its community agencies to develop programming in response to the concerning numbers of single women and their children who were living in Toronto’s shelters. 

The United Way had identified three main barriers facing single mothers experiencing homelssness, Pauline Hockenstein from Woodgreen recalls. Those barriers were limited access to education, housing and childcare. So Woodgreen proposed Homeward Bound as a solution to address all three of those barriers at once.

Since then, hundreds of women have gone through the program in Toronto, Hockenstein says. And recently, agencies in other Ontario communities have begun to replicate the model to address housing precarity and homelessness among mother-led families.

Between April 2019 and March 2020, 47 families experienced homelessness in Peterborough, according to a report from the City. And of those families, more than half were led by a single mother.

Maisie Watson remembers travelling to Toronto with Peterborough Housing Corporation CEO Darlene Cook to visit Homeward Bound years ago. “The first time we went, we were just blown away by the program and we talked about it all the way home,” she remembers. After visiting a second time, Watson and Cook began to wonder if something similar could be done in Peterborough. “And then the third time we went, we said, ‘We have to do this.’”

The Peterborough Housing Corporation and the local YWCA originally partnered to launch Homeward Bound in Peterborough, but the YWCA is no longer involved, Cook says. To pay for the program, the PHC and YWCA fundraised, and there was significant community support, including over $150,000 that was provided by the congregation at Trinity United Church to furnish the apartments and help pay for tuition.

A demanding program

Homeward Bound Peterborough starts with a period of academic upgrading and preparation to ensure the women are college ready. Then it’s on to Fleming College, where the women’s tuition is paid for by the program. After graduating, the participants have access to further skills and workplace training and a 14-week unpaid internship before they begin their search for permanent employment and their own housing. 

“This is not an easy program,” says Watson. “There’s a huge process to go through to get accepted. We’re looking for things like resilience and persistence and dedication, because trying to raise a family, go to school and do homework at night isn’t easy.”

Maisie Watson, manager of Homeward Bound Peterborough. (Photo: Will Pearson)

The program’s intake requirements mean many single mothers who are inadequately housed might not be eligible. The Peterborough Housing Corporation uses application criteria and screening processes provided by Woodgreen to select participants, Cook says. According to Woodgreen’s website, women have to have abstained from drugs for one year, have no more than three children, not be facing any current criminal proceedings and preferably have a high school diploma.

For the first Peterborough cohort, COVID-19 made an already demanding program that much harder. Watson says that shifting to online school for both themselves and their children was “incredibly difficult” for the women, especially those with toddlers. “But I have to tell you, every one of our women has done well.”

Khatyo says that she had one additional source of support during the pandemic: her sons. “They were very great, because they understood my situation and my learning.”

“When I was doing assignments, they would say to each other, ‘Don’t talk, don’t do this. Mom has to finish her assignments.’ So they were a big part of my success.”

As part of her studies, Khatyo completed a placement at the daycare in her apartment building, which is run by Compass Early Learning and Care. It was through that placement that she was offered the job she started last month.

In the longterm, Khatyo says she might consider further education and perhaps a different job. For now, though, she’s just happy to be done with school and have more free time.

“No more assignments to worry about,” she says. “Just spending time with my children.”

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