Staff Are Occupying Northern Ireland’s Only Women’s Hostel to Stop It Being Shut Down

'We’re not going anywhere.'

by Anna Cafolla

9 March 2022

Staff and supporters gather at a picket outside Regina Coeli House, January 2022. Photo: Unite the Union

Up a secluded lane in West Belfast sits Regina Coeli House, Northern Ireland’s only women-only hostel. Since 1935, the 21-bed facility has provided housing and support for domestic abuse survivors, the homeless 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 gather at a picket close to the facility. People serve tea, coffee and veggie chilli in plastic tupperware. Staff members and former service-users make speeches, supported by Unite the Union and local politicians from People Before Profit, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and Sinn Féin.

Behind them, over a high metal fence, the lights are on in Regina Coeli, where a group of staff members and former service-users have just begun a 24/7 work-in.

“It’s baltic, my hands are frozen off,” says Sandra Kane, a former staff member and occupier fighting to save the facility who Novara Media met at the picket line. “But we’re not going anywhere.” So far, they’ve kept their promise: on 3 March, the workers marked 50 days in occupation.

Up for a fight.

This isn’t the first time Regina Coeli has faced closure. The hostel was almost shut down in 2016, but was saved after a new funding arrangement was found. The current threat comes after the hostel’s landlord, the Legion of Mary – the world’s largest organisation of lay Catholics – claimed it couldn’t pay for building repairs, understood to amount to £500,000. This figure is in dispute, however – Taryn Trainor, Unite’s Regional Equalities and Women’s Officer, believes it has been “grossly exaggerated” to ensure the facility’s closure.

Following a repairs assessment in November 2021, staff received notice of permanent closure from the hostel’s management committee (a voluntary team, of which some members are associated with the Legion of Mary) in December with immediate effect, and redundancy for 27 February. Residents were told to leave in taxis provided by management to alternative mixed gender accommodation – accommodation which, according to the occupiers, is unsuitable for women in need of specialist support. In January, management served six staff members involved in the occupation letters of suspension on grounds of alleged “serious breaches of the safety and security” of residents, while giving written notice to the remaining residents “terminating their licence to occupy any room in the building”. On 10 February, legal action notices were served on those involved in the occupation, then last week, two days before the redundancy date, workers received notice of their sacking from management – a move Trainor describes as “adding insult to injury”.   

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

The Department and Housing Executive told Novara Media it would consider any proposals provided by the Legion of Mary to address the building’s repairs, but that “none have been provided”. They add that they “are working to explore longer term options for ­maintaining this kind of vital housing service for women as urgently as possible.”

Unite’s regional coordinating officer Susan Fitzgerald believes the service at Regina Coeli has been “consciously run down” 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 dropped due to Covid-19 restrictions, the facility’s 21 staff members were reduced to just five paid staff and volunteers. The management committee stopped paying for services like food, oil and bin collection, such that the facility had no oil over Christmas and the hostel attracted rats. In response, the local community and local Unite branches have rallied together to keep the service going.

Even before this, however, staff said work had been made increasingly untenable. “I’ve heard first hand accounts of the poor and inappropriate treatment staff have endured from sections of management”, Fitzgerald recalls. “As a trade union official who hears all sorts, I’ve been genuinely shocked.” Indeed, women told Novara Media that they had been verbally abused and threatened by members of the management committee at their picket in January.

The occupiers are demanding that the Legion of Mary hands over Regina Coeli to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, and for ministerial intervention to find funding to keep the service open and save jobs.

So far, the campaign has won some support. An active petition to save the hostel has almost 12,000 signatures, and last week a solidarity picket took place 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 hostel’s future. Councillor Fiona Ferguson said its shuttering was “abhorrent” and expressed disappointment that Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, whose department funds the service provided at Regina Coeli, had yet to intervene. A Department for Communities spokesperson, however, told Novara Media that “the minister has expressed her disappointment in the decision by Regina Coeli to close their facility” while “working to respond to Regina Coeli’s decision quickly and in the best manner possible”, and ­that “alternative accommodation for the immediate term has been identified.”

“The minister has felt the pressure,” Ferguson says. “But we need to keep it up to save the jobs and the service. The workers are very much up for that fight.”

A shadow pandemic.

The battle over Regina Coeli is part of a much bigger problem of gendered violence across the island of Ireland.

On the same day as January’s picket, Ferguson also addressed crowds 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 society’s deep-rooted, institutional misogyny,” Ferguson said. “It’s the same kind of misogyny that leads to women facing domestic abuse, that sees women in our city doubly hurt when there are cuts to these services.”

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

Sonya McMullan, Women’s Aid NI’s regional services manager, tells Novara Media it’s essential that women-only refuges exist in Northern Ireland. Women’s Aid has eight local groups that provide refuge accommodation, and when they’re at capacity they look to facilities like Regina Coeli to house women in need. Last year, 180 women couldn’t be housed in Women’s Aid refuges due to capacity issues.

A raft of legislative changes in 2022 are expected to help tackle women’s issues. Last week saw the long-awaited Domestic Abuse and Family Proceedings Act come into effect, making coercive control illegal (Northern Ireland is the only UK region which has yet to address coercive control at a legislative level). Stalking will be made a criminal offence, while the Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims Bill will bring measures to help victims of sexual offences as well as strengthen current image-based sexual abuse law.

But while this legislation has been welcomed, there remains a lack of commitment to funding specialist women’s services. In November 2020, the Housing Executive launched a plan to tackle the challenges in homelessness service delivery during the pandemic, and in May 2021, the Communities Minister confirmed a £9m investment. But a 2021 report on Northern Ireland’s homeless women population shows “very little specifically developed” services for chronic homeless women service users, describing gender specific provisions as “negligible”, especially outside of Belfast. “Mixed accommodation for these women is not acceptable,” says Trainor.

“There’s residents [at Regina Coeli] who have experienced violent partners and need an all-women space to feel safe”, Kane argues. “Are we really asking women who have experienced violence at the hands of men to go into a mixed hostel? Where is the humanity for these women?

‘It feels like home.’

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

“There’s beauty nights. We cook together. We’re confidantes. We’re like mums and sisters. We’re a family,” Kane explains. “There’s nothing like it.”

“I know I can go to the girls at any time,” says 51-year-old Trish Moses, who has used Regina Coeli for the previous three months, addressing the media in January. “They drop everything to speak to you. It’s a nice place – it feels like home.”

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

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

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