Hospital hostel needs help

Agnes Cowan facility to get upgrades

Barb Sweet
Published on July 5, 2014
Corina Reid, manager of the Agnes Cowan Hostel at the Health Sciences Centre, talks about improvements that need to be addressed at the facility,  including older-model ovens that do not work in the kitchenettes in the Janeway rooms. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

If you’ve never needed it, you might not even know it was there — the Agnes Cowan Hostel, tucked in by the receiving department at the Health Sciences Centre.

The hostel now has its own pressing need — major TLC.

The hostel, which has two sections connected by a skywalk, serves out-of-town patients who require diagnostic and specialty health services in St. John’s and need affordable accommodations.

On one side of the hostel there are 88 rooms for adults and the other side is for the Janeway, with 30 family efficiency units.

But the ovens don’t work in the built-in stoves in the Janeway units, and many of the original compact fridges went kaput and have had to be replaced.

In various areas of the hostel, the carpet is worn or horribly stained. There are leaks in the ceiling and the paint is peeling from wear and tear, including gouging from the huge laundry carts that are pushed down hallways. There are no bumper guards or crash rails to protect the walls.

The beds, linens, bathrooms and other room fittings are kept sparkling clean by housekeeping staff.

“Flooring and paint is a priority for me as manager,” said Corina Reid, who took The Telegram on  a tour of Agnes Cowan this week.

“It’s our time.”

The hostel is part of Eastern Health but — according to charitable tax filings with the Canada Revenue Agency — operates at a deficit of roughly $175,000 a year, based on fiscal 2012-13.

The fees are kept low — ranging from $36 for a single adult room to $43 for a double and $50 a night for a Janeway efficency unit — because of the financial need of those who use the facility.

The fees include taxes and free parking, although space is limited. Sunday to Thursday — popular due to physician clinic schedules — occupancy rates are 80-90 per cent and sometimes people are turned away, Reid said.

“Which is sad because so many of our clients love it here. It’s so convenient to the hospital,” said Reid, who transferred to that facility from long-term care and is passionate about the place and the work.

“I love the environment and atmosphere here. It’s self-fulfilling that you can do something to help people here. When you see the appreciation on someone’s face and you know their story, it is so gratifying to work here.”

Often, though, people wander in, not knowing what the facility is.

“We have people coming here thinking it’s for blood work, thinking they are coming for research. We are redirecting people all the time,” Reid said.

Eastern Health has recognized the hostel’s need as a priority and budgeted $200,000 for repairs in fiscal 2014-15.

The extent of needed repairs hasn’t been tallied.

A physical condition assessment of the facility is expected to be finalized late this month. There have been a number of meetings, Reid said, and a decision was made to enlarge the showers  in the rooms on the adult side of the hostel, as they couldn’t be refitted without great expense.

The Agnes Cowan Hostel has a registered charity number to accept donations and government funding as the General Hospital Hostel Association. However the hostel has been owned and managed by Eastern Health since the health authority was established in 2005.

 While it has a deficit, fees paid by hostel guests go towards its operation, while upgrades and improvements are paid for through the operational budget of Eastern Health, which also accepts charitable donations through its foundations for its programs and services.

“Revenues are supposed to do for operational,” Reid said.

“But when you are charging 36 bucks for a room, we are not generating enough income to meet our operational requirements.”

Reid would welcome a boost in donations or corporate sponsorships.

The hostel does receive help from time to time. Groups or companies bring in food or organize events like bingo games.

Reid recalled that on Christmas Eve a man visited a friend of a friend who was staying there. Shortly after Christmas, he showed up with seven mini fridges that his corporation donated to help out.

And although the physical state of the hostel is the concern now, she hopes one day to be able to provide activities and entertainment for the people who, during troubled times, must make the hostel a temporary home, some for just a day, others for weeks or months. 

Artist murals would also be welcomed.

“When I came here my mind was just reeling with the possibilities,” Reid said.

“The need is so great here and there are some awesome people who come here to stay with us.”

Repairs will be done in phases without closing the whole hostel, , so people can still be accommodated.

Various furnishings — mattresses and microwaves — have been replaced over the years as needed.

Some of the Janeway efficiency units have had other stoves added, and guests without working ovens can go to the adult side of the hostel and use communal kitchens if they want.

The rooms are configured so they serve a variety of purposes — the doubles might have two twin beds or a twin and a double.

Some of the Janeway units have cribs in addition to beds. Some units are wheelchair accessible.

The original part of the hostel was built in 1984 and the facility was named for a nurse and hospital administrator who worked at the Riverhead and Old General hospitals in the mid- to late-1800s. After her death, a group of friends founded the Cowan Mission, according to the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador website.

Some of the hostel’s wear and tear is due to guests who’ve abused the rooms, including some who’ve pushed window screens out to smoke.

But that’s a small fraction of the clientele, Reid said, adding that process is also being worked on.

“Some people are here for months and you come in and not a thing is out of place,” she said.