Staff occupy Northern Ireland’s only women’s shelter to prevent it from closing

In a secluded lane in West Belfast is Regina Coeli House, Northern Ireland’s only women’s hostel. Since 1935, the 21-bed facility has provided housing and support for victims of domestic violence, homeless people, and women with addictions and mental health issues. Now it faces the threat of imminent closure.

On a freezing Friday night in mid-January, dozens of people gather at a picket near the facility. People serve tea, coffee and vegetarian chili in plastic tupperware. Staff and former service users give speeches, supported by Unite the Union and local politicians from People Before Profit, the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) and Sinn Féin.

Behind them, above a high metal fence, the lights are on at Regina Coeli, where a group of staff and former service users have just started 24/7 work.

“It’s the Baltic, my hands are frozen,” says Sandra Kane, a former staff member and occupier fighting to save the establishment whom Novara Media encountered on the picket line. “But we’re not going anywhere.” So far, they have kept their promise: on March 3, the workers celebrated 50 days of occupation.

Ready for a fight.

This isn’t the first time Regina Coeli has faced closure. The inn was almost closed in 2016, but was saved after a new funding deal was struck. The current threat comes after the hostel’s owner, the Legion of Mary – the world’s largest lay Catholic organization – claimed it could not afford repairs to the building, estimated at £500,000. That figure is disputed, however – Taryn Trainor, regional equalities and women’s manager at Unite, believes it was “grossly exaggerated” to secure the facility’s closure.

Following an assessment of repairs in November 2021, staff received notice of permanent closure from the hostel management committee (a team of volunteers, some of whom are associated with the Legion of Mary) in December with immediate effect, and a dismissal for February 27. Residents have been told to leave in taxis made available by management to alternative mixed housing – housing which occupants say is not suitable for women in need of specialist support. In January, management served six staff involved in the occupation hanger letters due to alleged “serious harm to the safety and security” of residents, while notifying the remaining residents in writing “to terminate their license to occupy any room in the building”. On February 10, notices were served on those involved in the occupation, then last week, two days before the date of the dismissal, the workers received notice of their dismissal direction – a move Trainor describes as “adding insult to injury”.

Staff and Unite say they have repeatedly asked to see structural surveys of the building, but the management committee has not made them available. Trainor says Unite even offered to pay for another survey, which the board and the Legion of Mary refused.

The department and housing executive told Novara Media that they would consider all proposals provided by the Legion of Mary to carry out repairs to the building, but that “none have been provided.” They add that they are “working to explore longer-term options to maintain this type of vital housing service for women as quickly as possible.”

Unite Regional Coordinating Officer Susan Fitzgerald believes service at Regina Coeli has been “consciously curtailed” by the management committee in anticipation of the facility’s pre-planned closure. During the period in which the number of referrals to the hostel plummeted due to Covid-19 restrictions, the establishment’s 21 staff were reduced to just five paid staff and volunteers. The management committee stopped paying for services such as food, oil and garbage collection, so the establishment ran out of oil by Christmas and the hostel attracted rats. In response, the local community and local Unite branches have stepped up to maintain the service.

Even before that, however, staff said the work had become increasingly untenable. “I heard first-hand accounts of the poor and inappropriate treatment staff received from sections of management,” Fitzgerald recalled. “As a union official who hears everything, I was really shocked.” Indeed, women told Novara Media that they were insulted and threatened by members of the management committee during their picket in January.

The Occupiers are demanding the Legion of Mary hand over Regina Coeli to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and ministerial intervention find funds to keep the service open and save jobs.

So far, the campaign has won some support. A active petition to save the hostel has nearly 12,000 signatures, and last week a solidarity picket was held at Belfast’s hostel for vulnerable men, Morning Star House.

In January, Belfast City Council passed a motion calling for an emergency meeting with key stakeholders to discuss the future of the hostel. Councilor Fiona Ferguson said her formwork was “abhorrent” and expressed disappointment that Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, whose department is funding the service provided to Regina Coeli, has yet to intervene. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Communities, however, told Novara Media that “the Minister expressed her disappointment with Regina Coeli’s decision to close her establishment” while “working to respond to Regina Coeli’s decision quickly and the best possible manner”, and that “An alternative accommodation for the immediate term has been identified.”

“The minister felt the pressure,” Ferguson said. “But we have to keep going to save jobs and service. Workers are fully prepared for this fight.

A shadow pandemic.

The battle for Regina Coeli is part of a much larger problem of gender-based violence across the island of Ireland.

On the same day as the January picket, Ferguson also addressed the crowd at a Belfast vigil for Ashling Murphy, the 23-year-old teacher murdered in County Offaly in January. “What happened to Ashling is the result of deep-rooted institutional misogyny in society,” Ferguson said. “It’s the same kind of misogyny that drives women to be victims of domestic violence, that sees women in our city doubly hurt when there are cuts to these services.”

Recent figures show that more women are murdered in Northern Ireland as a result of domestic violence than in any other part of Western Europe. Additionally, the Police Service of Northern Ireland saw a 12% increase in domestic violence calls over the Christmas period.

Sonya McMullan, regional services manager for Women’s Aid NI, tells Novara Media that it is essential that women-only shelters exist in Northern Ireland. Women’s Aid has eight local groups that provide shelter, and when they are at capacity, they turn to facilities like Regina Coeli to house women in need. Last year, 180 women could not be accommodated in Women’s Aid shelters due to capacity issues.

A series of legislative changes in 2022 should help address women’s issues. Last week saw the long-awaited Domestic Violence and Family Procedures Act come into force, making coercive control illegal (Northern Ireland is the only region in the UK that has not yet addressed coercive control at the legislative level). Harassment will become a criminal offensewhile the Sexual Offenses and Victims of Trafficking Bill bring measures to help victims of sexual offenses and strengthen current legislation on image-based sexual abuse.

But while this legislation has been welcomed, there remains a lack of commitment to fund specialist services for women. In November 2020, the Housing Executive launched a map to address the challenges of providing services to the homeless during the pandemic, and in May 2021 the Minister for Communities confirmed an investment of £9 million. But one report 2021 on Northern Ireland’s female homeless population shows “very little specifically developed” services for chronic users of female homeless services, describing gender provisions as “negligible”, particularly outside of Belfast. “Mixed housing for these women is not acceptable,” says Trainor.

“There are people [at Regina Coeli] who have known abusive partners and need a women-only space to feel safe,” says Kane. “Do we really ask women who have suffered violence from men to go to a mixed home? Where is the humanity for these women?

‘It feels like home.’

Despite the hostel’s uncertain future and their appalling working conditions, the staff at Regina Coeli continue to go above and beyond to support the women they serve. Now, there is only one user of the service in the establishment.

“There are beauty evenings. We cook together. We are confidants. We are like mothers and sisters. We are a family,” says Kane. “There is no such thing.”

“I know I can go see the girls anytime,” said Trish Moses, 51, who has been using Regina Coeli for three months, speaking to the media in January. “They drop everything to talk to you. It’s a nice place – it feels like home.

After initially agreeing to an interview with Novara Media, Regina Coeli’s executive committee could not be reached. The Legion of Mary also declined to comment.

Anna Cafolla is a journalist specializing in women’s rights, Northern Ireland, youth culture and activism.

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