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Closed to Travelers by COVID-19, Hostel Finds New Uses

building facade
The HI Richmond hostel, in the former Otis Elevator building at 7 N. Second St. (Photo: Alex Broening/VPM News)

 *This story was reported by VPM News intern Alex Broening

The Richmond Hostel, which provides communal temporary housing as part of an international network, had to close down this spring because of the coronavirus.

In closing down, the hostel had to furlough all its employees except the general manager, Brooke Matherly. She says the decision to close to travelers was difficult: “At the very core of the decision was the discomfort of our own staff to continue operating in an environment where they were being consistently exposed to people that were coming from everywhere.” 

Matherly adds that the communal living offered by the hostel is not conducive to social distancing. And she says youth travelers “aren’t always the best at maintaining distance and following protocols.”

While Matherly regrets having to furlough her employees during a difficult time, she’s pleased that the hostel can continue providing them with health benefits during the pandemic. 

sign on door
Photo: Alex Broening/VPM News

Even though the Richmond Hostel has now been closed for months, it has not remained empty. Home Again, a Richmond homeless shelter and resettlement program, rented the building from April to June to provide additional shelter space during the pandemic. 

Joshua Stutz, director of development at Home Again, says that because of safety precautions needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the shelter’s existing facilities weren’t able to house as many people as before. “With COVID, we weren’t sure what to expect, so there was a slightly diminished capacity in the shelters themselves,” he says, adding that Home Again had to reorganize communal living spaces and procedures to keep residents safe. 

Stutz also points out that the additional demand put more pressure on the shelter. “There were also suddenly more people who were already homeless and now wanted to get off the street to stay safe, or who had recently become homeless.”

All the shelter’s clients staying at the Richmond Hostel had been moved to more permanent accommodation or to other Richmond shelters before Home Again left the hostel space in June. And while Stutz expects homelessness to continue to grow, he says Home Again isn’t considering continuing to rent additional space at the moment. “It's always a possibility at the table, though.” Normally, if all Richmond shelters are full, people just have to wait for a spot to open up.

Next month, the Richmond Hostel hopes to house AmeriCorp volunteers to work with the Enrichmond Foundation. The group would stay there until October. Matherly says she’s glad that the hostel is still able to contribute to the community, even while closed. 

However, other programs run by the Richmond Hostel have had to be cancelled outright. Each year, the hostel gives $2000  to five or six young Richmond residents for educational or service-centered international travel. This year, because of travel bans and health risks, the hostel wasn’t able to run that program. The sooner international travel returns to normal, the better, Matherly says, but she doesn’t expect to reopen within the year.