Reflections on Home in a Time of COVID-19

Our CEO, Ene Underwood, reflects on home in a time of COVID-19.  

The COVID-19 emergency has reminded us all of our vulnerability to larger circumstances that we cannot control. Moreover, it has illuminated the even greater vulnerability of large portions of our population who have not benefited from a safe, secure and comfortable home in which to “shelter in place”.

When it comes to the housing conversation, recent media headlines have placed particular emphasis on the vulnerabilities of those who are homeless, seniors in long-term care centres, or individuals who live in homes for the developmentally or physically disabled.

At Habitat for Humanity GTA, we serve the people that you see every day – but that don’t immediately come to mind as needing help with housing. They are the people who are working behind the counter at your local grocery store, the people packing your online e-commerce orders, the people delivering you meals from your favorite restaurants. They are the dental assistants, teaching assistants, and the early childhood education workers waiting to look after your children again when daycares re-open.

Let me give you an example of the families we work with at Habitat for Humanity GTA.

Two years ago, I visited a family of four – mom, dad, six year old son, five year old daughter – in their home. For their family, home was two rooms and a narrow hallway. One room doubled up as a kitchen and bathroom with appliances sharing space with a plastic shower stall and a toilet. The other room with dimensions of 12’x10’ was their main living space. It included a bed shared by the two children, a narrow table, two adult chairs, two plastic children’s chairs and all the family’s other possessions. This included the mattress hidden under the children’s bed on which Nima and Gaia slept at night.

If they still lived there today, this is where they would be “sheltering in place”. When Nima worked nightshifts at the distribution centre, where would he sleep during the day? Where would Gaia do bookwork for her clients?  Where would the children do school work? Where would anyone go for a moment of privacy – when not even the bathroom had its own door.

Today, Nima, Gaia and their children are Habitat homeowners in a community of 13 new townhomes.

Nima helped build those homes.  Every Saturday for over a year, he was at the build site volunteering 500 hours of his time as part of his family’s partnership for a zero down-payment mortgage.

The money they were previously spending on rent now serves as mortgage payments, enabling the family to build equity in addition to experiencing the pride and stability of homeownership.

Across every aspect of our society and economy, the journey to full COVID-19 recovery will be a marathon, not a sprint. Balance will be important. The COVID-19 emergency has amplified attention to top-of-mind causes like food banks, homelessness, mental health and health care. These are critically important.

Beyond this, we must not overlook investing in the very families whose work we rely on every day.  Families like Nima and Gaia. Families who are working hard, determined to get ahead — but stuck in horrible living conditions, and just need a hand up in order to fully thrive. A balanced recovery will find ways to invest across the entire housing continuum so that people at every stage can aspire to moving forward – enabling our entire city to become stronger.

Toronto is a city of great housing inequalities – a city of housing “haves” and “have nots”. COVID-19 has shone a light on this and has reminded us all of the value of “home”. My hope is that the greater appreciation of “home” realized by the “housing haves” will inspire a greater emphasis on philanthropy and policy decisions that favor the “housing have-nots”.

If you are inspired to do so, we would really appreciate you directing your charitable giving to Habitat for Humanity GTA. You can find out the many ways you can give back here:

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