Ann calls the Regina Coeli women’s hostel in Belfast “the safest place in all of Northern Ireland”.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better place,” she says. “I was physically, emotionally and mentally abused for years. This place saved my life.”
After almost 80 years of providing refuge, the only women’s-only homeless shelter in all of Northern Ireland is being shut down at the end of next month. Women at the hostel face being sent to mixed emergency accommodation.
“I was sent to a mixed hostel when I was 16,” Ann, whose name we have changed, says quietly. “I was raped there. I kept it secret inside me for many years.”
The current residents are so determined to save the service, they are now occupying the hostel with a sit-in. Meanwhile, in a show of extraordinary solidarity, the shelter’s workers are staging a ‘work-in’, so these vulnerable women are still supported.
“When I arrived at Regina Coeli, I went and sat on the bed and cried,” Ann says. “They were tears of joy because I realized I was finally free. For years my partner hadn’t allowed me to have any friends. At Regina Coeli I had so many friends. The staff became my family.”
Owned by the Legion of Mary, a Catholic voluntary organisation, the hostel has been providing temporary accommodation to the homeless and vulnerable in the city since 1935.
It can hold up to 21 guests with 16 bedrooms, two common rooms and laundry facilities.
But the Legion of Mary says it must close because it needs repairs costing more than £500,000.
Two weeks ago, Ireland experienced its own Sarah Everard moment, following the murder of 23-year-old schoolteacher Ashling Murphy across the border in Tullamore, Co Offaly. As well as vigils across the Republic of Ireland, hundreds gathered outside Belfast City Hall, and across Northern Ireland in Derry, Newry, Coleraine and Strabane.
In the aftermath, women at the hostel hoped the church might grant them a reprieve.
Ashling’s death felt especially painful, as it follows the murder of mother-of-four Caoimhe Morgan at her North Belfast home in December.
Sinn Fein’s group leader on Belfast council, Ciaran Beattie told an emergency meeting last week: “A quick Google search of the Diocese of Down and Connor [which includes Belfast] will tell you they have £159million in their total reserves. It isn’t that they are short of money.”
The Legion of Mary was today unavailable for comment.
But a previous statement stated that “following a building inspection… the house was found to be in a state of such disrepair that the only option was the closure of Regina Coeli”.
The hostel is in Republican West Belfast, only meters from the Falls Road, and close by the Felons Club, the club of the Irish Republican Felons Association, founded by ex-prisoners.
But the women there say it has always been a support to anyone in need, no matter what religion. “This has always been cross-community,” says Mary Ginise, a member of staff who faces losing her job in a month’s time.
“Religion stops at the front door. Women come from the Falls Road here, and the Shankhill and everywhere else. Your duty is to love human beings.”
A memorial event on Cave Hill, overlooking Belfast, will be held for Caoimhe Morgan next weekend.
She is the 12th woman to be murdered in Northern Ireland since the start of the pandemic.
Figures that were released in November show that proportionately more women are murdered in Northern Ireland as a result of domestic violence than in any other part of western Europe.
In the whole of Europe, only Romania matches Northern Ireland’s toll of 0.43 killings per 100,000 inhabitants, which is three times that of England and Wales.
“It’s horrendous,” says Emma McCann, 42, a support worker at the hostel.
“There are trafficked women here as well as women from Belfast. When they told us it was closing, it was devastating.”
Emma has worked at Regina Coeli for five years.
“But I’ve been coming here since I was 10 years old. My Mummy was a volunteer here for 30 years.”
Albert Hewitt, Head of Unite Community in Northern Ireland, says Unite is supporting the picket 24/7, while the women occupy the building.
“The residents were told they would be rehoused but when that failed, they’ve had eviction notices,” he says.
“They are closing the building on February 27. The women are staying with our support.”
He says Unite members and the local community are providing food and money for oil to keep the heating on. Campaigners are calling for Sinn Fein’s Deirdre Hargey, Minister for Communities and a former Lord Mayor of Belfast, to act.
A Department for Communities spokesperson said: “The Minister is disappointed in the decision by Regina Coeli House to close their facility and her priority is the safety of the women who need this service.
“Officials and the Minister are working with the Housing Executive to respond to this decision quickly and in the best manner possible and alternative accommodation for the immediate term has been identified.”
The Department says it would consider proposals provided to it by the Legion of Mary.
“None have been provided to this point. The Department and Housing Executive are working to explore longer term options for maintaining this kind of vital housing service for women as urgently as possible.”
A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive said: “In November, we were made aware that the Regina Coeli facility is due to close by spring 2022.
“Our immediate priority was to secure accommodation for the existing residents of Regina Coeli, based on their circumstances and their support needs. Only a very small number now remain at the facility.
“The provision of specific support services and accommodation for women experiencing homelessness is a critical priority for us. We want to offer reassurance that we are proactively exploring ways in which the service offered by Regina Coeli can be provided going forward.”
Ann’s abuse went on for decades, and through different relationships.
“My ex-partner took me to England and forced me to have a back street abortion,” she says. “My next partner never hit me, but he mentally abused me. My friend told me, ‘abuse is abuse’ and told me about Regina Coeli.
“I stayed two-and-a-half years. I got my confidence back, my self-esteem back. I learned to stand up to men. They gave me the first ever party I’d ever had in my life.
“They need this place kept open. Don’t leave more women to suffer in silence. We need to save Regina Coeli.”
Visit megaphone.org.uk and search “regina coeli” to sign their petition