Reflections on Heartbreak, Home and Hope at the Holiday Season

Ene Underwood
5 min readDec 21, 2023

As the clock runs down on 2023, I sit in my home reflecting on the year that was. In doing so, I am conscious of how much I have benefited from the stability, certainty, and safety of home during what has been a challenging and demanding year.

At no point in 2023 did I search job postings in other cities or regions, contemplating relocating because I can’t afford to live or raise a family here. I never found myself in line at the food bank so that I would have enough money left to pay my mortgage or rent. Keeping my home didn’t come at the cost of skipping Christmas or birthday presents for those I love. I didn’t spend a single night on a friend’s couch or in a tent in a park because I couldn’t find an affordable place to live.

Not a single day passed where I was forced to flee or fear losing my home due to fire, floods, earthquakes, or other natural disasters. I didn’t spend a single night shivering under a cardboard shelter after leaving my homeland to seek asylum in a country people told me would be welcoming. At no time was my home a place in which I cowered in fear, dreading that the voices outside would break through and wreak unimaginable harm on myself and my family. Not a single morning dawned with me feeling relieved that my children and I had made it through the night without my home being bombed.

For me, throughout 2023, home was a place of safety and stability. My home provided a comfortable and reliable base from which I have been able to give my imperfect best to a job I care deeply about and to family and friends I love beyond words. Moreover, because of the certainty that comes with owning this building I call home, I am able to help out my family and plan for a secure retirement.

I am deeply conscious of how very different my experience of home and homeland has been in 2023 compared to thousands of fellow citizens here in the GTA and millions of citizens around the world. In 2023:

  • 89% of young Canadians were concerned about their ability to afford their mortgage or rent, 70% say the housing crisis has affected their mental health, and 55% say the housing crisis is causing them to rethink their plans for having children.[1]
  • Visits to food banks in Toronto increased 50%, driven in large part by housing unaffordability, with food bank users averaging $6.67 per day left for other needs after paying for housing and utilities.[2]
  • The number of tents and other makeshift structures in the City of Toronto doubled from 2022, with every community in the region and province reporting an increase in the prevalence of homelessness.[3]
  • 54% more people arrived in Canadian airports than in 2022, seeking asylum, the majority of whom have never experienced a Canadian winter and who, more often than not, found few options for permanent shelter.[4]
  • The UNHCR estimates that as of September 2003, 114 million people had been displaced from their homes due to persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations.[5]
  • Floods, fires, droughts, earthquakes and other natural disasters relating to climate change are estimated to cause over 20 million people to be forced to leave their homes every year.[6]
  • Globally, an estimated 1 billion people live in informal settlements, such as slums, favelas and refugee camps, and are not treated as equals.

In the midst of so much heartbreak and hardship associated with home and homeland, 2023 has been a year imbued with multiple signs of hope. Around the world, Habitat for Humanity helped 13.4 million people build or improve their homes in 2023.[7] Here at Habitat for Humanity GTA, our volunteers and construction teams helped us near completion on 70 homes and two new communities in addition to celebrating homeownership with families living in homes made available through four different developer partnerships.

Our work at Habitat for Humanity GTA is only one piece of the overwhelming global challenge of making home a source of hope and possibility — but we are reminded daily of how powerful and transformative this work is. Time and time again, we witness the changes and opportunities possible for Habitat homeowners. Their stories leave me ending 2023 with so much hope: hope in the possibilities created when people give a hand up to help deliver the strength, stability and certainty of home.

  • Alyssa, a single mom and community mental health worker, went from working three jobs and spending almost all of her income on rent to owning a home that is fully accessible for her nine-year-old daughter in a wheelchair, and after paying her mortgage; she has enough money left to fulfill her 12-year-old son’s dream of playing hockey.
  • Sam and Jill contemplated moving out of Province to provide their three-year-old daughter with a stable home after being renovicted. Now, they own a condo near the hospital where Jill works, and the peace of mind afforded by their new home was one of the factors that enabled Jill to realize a promotion at work.
  • Jenny recently got the keys to her new Habitat home in Toronto after the stress of seeing her rent rise hundreds of dollars over the past few years. She’s excited about finally building some savings and being able to provide the stability of home to her eight-year-old son.

As 2023 ends, may we all extend grace and compassion to those for whom home — and homeland — have been sources of hardship and heartbreak. May we resolve to do more in 2024 to work towards peace, understanding, and a world where everyone has a safe, decent place to live. And against a backdrop of overwhelming need, may those of us for whom home is a source of strength, give of ourselves to deliver the hope and possibilities of home to families like Alyssa’s, Sam and Gill’s, and Jenny’s.

[1] How the housing crisis is impacting the goals and wellbeing of young Canadians, Abacus Data, Oct 6, 2023

[2] Who’s Hungry Report, 2023 released by the Daily Bread Food Bank and North York Harvest Food Bank.

[3] Homeless encampments growing again in City of Toronto, Toronto Star, July 19, 2023.

[4] Airports see surge in asylum claims after border, visa requirements change. CTV online, Oct 25, 2023

[5] 114 million displaced by war, violence worldwide, UN News, 25 October 2023.

[6] Displacement and migration related to disasters, climate change and environmental degradation, European Migration Network, May 2023

[7] Habitat for Humanity International Annual Report, 2023



Ene Underwood

Ene is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity GTA, which helps working families build strength, stability and self-reliance through affordable homeownership.