The Regina Coeli House — the only all-female accommodation in Northern Ireland supporting those battling addiction, mental ill health, homelessness and abuse — has been a beacon of hope for women in crisis for nearly 90 years.
But in November last year, the Legion of Mary, a voluntary religious association which owns the building, announced the hostel would be closing this spring, claiming the facility requires remedial repairs that they cannot afford to carry out.
The sudden closure would not only mean the loss of dozens of jobs, but also the loss of a safe haven for women whose history of domestic abuse has made mixed accommodation a horrific and potentially re-traumatising prospect.
But Unite wasn’t going to let this pillar of the community go without a fight.
Support workers at Regina Coeli House, Unite members, took a brave stand last week by staging a protest alongside Unite Community members and dozens of other local supporters. The Unite Community Jim Larkin branch in particular has worked closely with the workforce – over Christmas, when the hostel was left without heating oil or food, the branch stepped in to help.
Now, staff are taking part in an on-going 24/7 ‘work-in’, occupying the hostel alongside the three remaining residents.
For support worker and Unite member Emma, this isn’t just about her job – it’s a fight to save a vital service that has transformed thousands of women’s lives over the decades.
“I’ve been coming to Regina Coeli house since I was ten years old, and I’ll be 41 this year,” she explained.
Emma’s early acquaintance with the hostel at such a young age was thanks to her mother, who volunteered with the Legion of Mary.
“She would come to the House on a Sunday night, cook the women their dinner, say prayers with them and speak with them. And she used to bring me with her,” Emma recounted. “I absolutely loved it – I learned how your life can be turned upside down in a heartbeat.
“You see, my mum herself was abused by my dad. So it was really eye-opening and inspiring for me to see how even though my mum had her own trauma to deal with – or maybe even because of it — she was here supporting other women and helping them get through their own hardships. From there, my love and passion for these women and this place just grew immensely.”
Emma (pictured above) has now been employed as a support worker and housekeeper at the hostel for the last five years. She says she could not have asked for a more personally rewarding job, despite the challenges.
“Some of the stories of these women, it would absolutely break your heart – the abuse, the addiction, in some cases having their own children taken away from them. It’s a lot to take,” she told UniteLive.
“You never know how the day will be from one to the next,” Emma added. “It’s especially emotional – for both parties – when we have women come in who we know from the area. It’s hard for some of these women to come in, but when they see a familiar face, they feel safe and protected. They feel that the help and support is there, because it’s someone they know and trust.”
But that vital sense of safety that the women who come to Regina Coeli House so desperately need is now at risk. Over the last several months, most of the residents at the 21-bed hostel have been forced to leave – it is understood the hostel’s management instructed some of the residents to take taxis to mixed accommodation elsewhere.
In one of the latest developments, Emma and her colleagues were abruptly suspended on Friday (January 14). And on Wednesday (January 20), the remaining residents were delivered a written notice terminating their license to occupy any room in the building.
But Regina Coeli House support workers remain undeterred – as the ‘work-in’ continues, Emma said it is her sacrosanct duty of care to the women she supports that keeps her going. She explained what exactly is at stake if the hostel were to close.
“Some of the women we have coming in, they’ve been trafficked; they’ve been sexually abused,” she noted. “These women cannot be around men for this reason. Every other hostel in Northern Ireland is a mixed hostel. So there’s nowhere for them to go where they would feel safe. This is also the only women’s hostel in Northern Ireland that’s ‘dual diagnosis’, which means we deal with abuse, addiction and mental health all in one.”
In fact, Emma reports, some of the residents who were forced to leave have returned to visit and show support for the campaign to keep Regina Coeli House open.
“They’ve said they’re absolutely breaking because they’re now in a place that they shouldn’t be in,” she noted. “They’ve come to show their support because they desperately want it to stay open so that they can come back here. This is how much this house means to them.”
The fight to save Regina Coeli House has garnered a groundswell of support from all sides. A petition started by Unite has, as of writing, received nearly 10,000 signatures. The Unite Community Jim Larkin branch has doggedly continued to spread the word throughout Belfast, drumming up growing public support for the campaign. Meanwhile, local politicians from across the political spectrum have likewise thrown their weight behind saving the hostel.
Unite has challenged the Legion of Mary’s account that that the building is structurally unsound and so must close – it has demanded evidence from the organisation but none has yet been provided. The union and its supporters are now calling on the Legion of Mary to transfer the building and grounds to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, which currently in part funds the services provided by the hostel.
Unite has highlighted that the Communities’ Ministers Deirdre Hargey has a responsibility to ensure that services for vulnerable women are properly funded and maintained. Unite believes that with the Housing Executive taking over the hostel and employing the staff directly, in addition to extra funding from Hargey, the Regina Coeli House can be given a new lease on life and could even expand its services.
Emma couldn’t agree more.
“We would love it if the Housing Executive took over the hostel because then we as staff can remain here and run the service to its full potential,” she said. “I am absolutely optimistic about this plan.”
And so too is Belfast City Council – at a special council meeting this week (January 16), a cross-party vote unanimously agreed to seek a meeting with the Bishop of Down & Connor Noel Treanor and Communities’ Minister Deirdre Hargey to discuss potential solutions that will keep Regina Coeli House open.
Commenting after the council meeting, Unite regional secretary Jackie Pollock said, “Our members working at Regina Coeli House have shown incredible bravery in taking the stand that they have in the face of threats and pressure. We now need to see other people – those in authority – be as brave and inventive in enabling the retention of Regina Coeli House.
“Alongside the need for a wider programme of investment in public housing, including that for vulnerable persons, we need to see the maintenance of the services offered at Regina Coeli House,” he added.
“That must mean the immediate removal of the suspensions of our members; the Legion of Mary must hand over the building and grounds to the NI Housing Executive who need to commit to stepping in to run it, including implementing the direct employment of the workforce so they can continue their vital work. As an immediate outcome from the council meeting, the Legion of Mary must now meet with Unite to discuss our members’ concerns.”
You can support the campaign to save Regina Coeli House by signing our petition here.
By Hajera Blagg
Pics by Emma McCann