British Columbia

These Vancouver hotels help pay for social programs. COVID-19 is threatening to put an end to that

From the outside — and even the inside — the YWCA Hotel Vancouver seems like any other hotel. Budget accommodations that offer travellers a clean and comfortable place to stay. 

Closures, lack of tourism drain social enterprises of once lucrative revenue streams

Social enterprise hotels have been hit hard during the pandemic and the organizations that run them worry about the future of the programs they support. (YWCA Hotel Vancouver, Skwachays Lodge/Facebook)

By all appearances, the YWCA Hotel Vancouver seems like any other hotel offering travellers on a budget a clean and comfortable place to stay. 

What makes this hotel different from the dozens of others around Vancouver is that the money it generates directly supports social programs at the YWCA Metro Vancouver, a non-profit organization focused on women and their families.

But some of those programs could soon be in jeopardy as the hotel struggles to both fill its rooms during the COVID-19 pandemic, and recuperate from lost revenues during the lockdown.

"It's been as devastating as anything I've ever seen," said Arthur Mills, vice-president of hotel and housing development with the YWCA.

Normally at this time of year, the hotel — which generates about $5 million a year for the non-profit — would be sitting at 90 per cent occupancy. Right now, it's at 15 per cent occupancy, which paints a bleak forecast. 

So far, Mills says, YWCA Metro Vancouver's social programs are surviving. But he warns if the situation doesn't improve, the organization might be forced to make difficult decisions about which programs are put on hold or cancelled.

Arthur Mills has spent his entire career working in the hotel industry. He says he's never seen the industry get hit so hard financially. (YWCA Hotel Vancouver)

In the end, crucial programs women in need rely on — such as support for single moms, violence prevention services, programming for youth and job-search aid — may no longer be available, he said. The hotel also offers a subsidy that provides emergency shelter to women in need.

"All this has impacted our business just dramatically," said Mills.

The YWCA Hotel Vancouver isn't the only social enterprise in the city struggling due to the drop-off in tourism.

The Skwachàys Lodge and Gallery in Railtown — equal parts boutique hotel and Aboriginal fair trade art gallery, which together fully fund 24 suites of supportive housing for urban Indigenous artists — was forced to close on March 19 due to COVID-19.

More than four months later, the hotel in the four-storey building remains closed.

"COVID has put the program in jeopardy," said David Eddy, CEO at the Vancouver Native Housing Society.

"If it were to be cancelled, they [the residents] would be devastated and there would be economical, emotional and personal effects."

The revenues from the Skwachàys Lodge and Gallery supportive housing to urban Indigenous artists. (SkwachaysLodge/Instagram)

Every year, the lodge generates just under $1.5 million a year. Now, Eddy is bracing for a loss of $500,000.

Despite the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic, he says he would take the closure of the program personally.

"We have an attitude that we can make things happen… but we [would] still feel like we failed and weren't able to provide that service to a portion of the community that is in great need," he said.

Forging ahead

Both the YWCA and Skwachàys hotels are now looking for other revenue streams to sustain their programs.

The YWCA hotel is looking at opening its suites to those who cannot find rentals, as well as promoting the hotel to local communities.

"We remain committed to our services, to our single mothers and their children and trying to help them… move along that road to economic independence," said Mills, with YWCA Hotel Vancouver.

As for the Skwachàys Lodge and Gallery, Eddy says his team is looking at the possibility of a Kickstarter campaign.

The gallery has already reopened and the hotel will once again be available to welcome guests starting Aug. 7.