Employees of Northern Ireland’s only all-women homeless accommodation facility said they have been suspended based on alleged ‘serious breaches of the safety and security’ of the hostel’s residents, following management’s decision to close the premises on Friday evening.
Members of Unite the Union working at Regina Coeli House also claimed that residents of the female-only hostel were told they must leave in taxis provided to “alternative and uncertain mixed accommodation which may not be appropriate to their needs”.
The union has since launched an online petition to save the women’s home.
The west Belfast hostel, which opened in 1935, was due to be closed at the end of February, but on Wednesday, workers started a protest outside the building and also staged a 24-7 work-in occupation of the facility.
Those to join the protest included politicians from Sinn Fein, the SDLP and People Before Profit.
On Friday evening, the trustees of Regina Coeli House said they were “dismayed by the actions relating to the sit in and associated protests and the impact this has had on vulnerable adults in what were previously secure premises”.
In a press statement, the management committee said they have had to advise their statutory partner, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, of the need for the three remaining residents of the hostel to be relocated, and added that “this may result in an earlier than planned closure of the facility”.
The statement reads: “This very difficult decision was forced upon us by professional assessment relating to remedial works that left us no other option. At no time, was the decision to close indicative of there no longer being a need for a homeless facility. Homelessness continues to be an issue across Northern Ireland and beyond.
“We have engaged fully with staff and stakeholders to achieve an orderly closure ensuring that the needs of residents are being addressed. This includes ongoing liaison with Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the conduct of a statutory redundancy process.
“Where engagement has been sought, we have endeavoured to meet the requests. However, like Dept for Communities, we have received no formal request for engagement from Unite the Union.”
Regional Women’s & Equalities Officer Taryn Trainor speaking at this evenings protest against the closure of Regina Coeli House @DeirdreHargey @nihecommunity— Unite the Union NI (@UniteunionNI) January 14, 2022
Please sign this petition to Save our Women's Hostel!https://t.co/pHUBH1fIvJ pic.twitter.com/gZW1ndEsCM
Unite members said they had met with officials from the Department for Communities (DfC) on Thursday afternoon and presented the case for Minister Deirdre Hargey to intervene and safeguard the refuge for homeless and vulnerable women.
The trade union’s general secretary Sharon Graham responded that “the stand of the workers and residents at Regina Coeli House has struck a chord with people across Northern Ireland, and indeed across these islands.
"The suspension of workers and threats to evict vulnerable women residents at Regina Coeli House are a disgraceful development – the workers and residents have the full support of this union,” she said.
The 21-bed facility is owned by the Legion of Mary but is funded by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
Ms Graham called on both organisations and Deirdre Hargey to “find a solution to the crisis which avoids the threatened closure of the only all-woman hostel in Northern Ireland.”
The communities minister said: "The closure of this facility is disappointing and my priority is the safety of the women who need this service. My officials and I 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 and the Housing Executive are working to explore longer term options for maintaining this kind of vital, housing service for women as urgently as possible."
Sinn Féin MP Paul Maskey, a colleague of Minister Hargey, expressed also his ‘shock and disappointment’ at the decision to close Regina Coeli House.
“I met with the Department for Communities yesterday and they were prepared to offer a number of options to the management committee, I am extremely disappointed that they haven’t taken that offer up and have instead closed the premises,” he said.
“Sinn Féin will continue to speak with the workers and the trade unions to ensure that workers and residents are protected.”
Unite previously said the number of residents at the facility – which provides services and accommodation for those suffering homelessness, addiction, mental health and domestic abuse – has been “rapidly run-down” during the pandemic.
This is said to have included vulnerable residents being transferred to mixed-sex accommodation despite their needs.
The DfC’s Supporting People Programme, which is administered by The Housing Executive, provides funding to Regina Coeli House.
A further statement was also issued from the Housing Executive: “We are aware that the Regina Coeli facility in West Belfast is due to close by Spring 2022.
“Contingency plans are already in place to secure accommodation for the existing residents of Regina Coeli, based on their circumstances and their support needs and we are actively pursuing alternative housing solutions.
“As is normal practice, this will involve engagement with each resident and only a small number remain at the facility.”