Northern Wilds Magazine

Hostel becomes ‘haven’ for foreign students

Last fall, Holly Watson, owner of The Haven Hostel in Thunder Bay decided to open her facility to foreign college and university students as a way to get through the winter months that are traditionally slow for tourism. The plan was to house the students through April 30 and then ramp up for the summer season during early May. At least, that was the pre-pandemic plan.

“Then March happened,” Watson said.

She returned from a work stint as an environmental consultant at a remote location to  Thunder Bay that was shutting down in preparation for the arrival of the coronavirus. She went to Home Depot to find people standing 10 feet apart to purchase household necessities.

“It was like being in an apocalypse,” she said.

It was clear the summer tourism season was now on hold. The foreign students staying at the hostel, most of whom are from India, had all been laid off, were unable to fly home, and had nowhere to go.

For Watson, it was a moment of panic. At first, she worried the students would become complacent and prevent regular hostel business from arriving. Faced with new coronavirus-related rules to protect tenants, she would not be able to evict them, nor would she want to during a pandemic. Thinking worrisome thoughts, she fretted about her business dilemma for a week. Then, in a meeting with her mentor group, they realized there was a positive opportunity there.

“They told me to put a positive spin on the situation. The Haven Hostel could become a haven for these kids,” she said. “I decided to make a go of it in a day and all of a sudden I was pivoting again.”

She found the students were taking a laissez faire approach to addressing their situation. They weren’t really looking for other housing alternatives despite receiving information and assistance on the local rental market. It was likely 14 students would continue living at the hostel as they have become quite comfortable.

Since gatherings of more than five are not allowed, Watson met with four of the students to see if the group wanted to stay at the hostel through July 1. It was clear a family had formed and the students wanted to remain together and were willing to stay. However, now they would be on their own due to COVID-19 precautions.

During the school year, with the help of an incredible young volunteer named Yasmin, Watson and her business partner had spent at least two hours a day cleaning up for the students; a task that was at times frustrating because this was the first time many of them had lived away from home. Now the students are on lockdown, which means they have to take care of themselves. Watson provided them with cleaning supplies and the tools they need to stay informed and keep their living quarters clean.

“We’ve been coaching them for seven months now,” she said. “We’re supplying everything for them. Now they’re on their own.”

With social distancing guidelines, the students are living in a self-contained unit. If they need anything, there is an on-site student supervisor and they can call or text Watson anytime . She will do biweekly walk-throughs to check on the facility.

“It’s definitely hard not being in there every day,” she said. “But so far, it looks pretty good.”

She started a Go-Fund-Me fundraiser to assist the students with paying for food and supplies. As the weather improves, she’d like to provide them with food to prepare a “family dinner” with an outdoor grill. Click here to visit the Go-Fund-Me page to help or call The Haven Hostel at 1-807-285-1142.

Like many other business owners, Watson isn’t sure what the future holds. She knows that when the agreement with the students ends July 1, she’ll need to pivot again. If tourism remains on hold, she may house medical staff at the hostel. For now, she’s satisfied to be assisting people in need and maintaining a small revenue stream for her business. In the ‘new normal’ created by the coronavirus crisis, that counts as a business success.

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