The ‘Raging Charlies’: homelessness and community

On April 2 1986 Sr Judy Davey spent the first night at a building called ‘Regina Coeli’ in North Melbourne. Soon the doors would be opened to women who didn’t fit in elsewhere, who were homeless, dealing with mental illness or family violence.

But this new venture for the Sisters of Mercy was always about more than simply providing accommodation, at arms’ length from those who needed their help.

The Sisters were not about ‘rescuing’ or ‘fixing’ women. Instead they began living alongside them, creating a shared community. They believed lives could be changed through the simplest of daily transactions, and had no schedules or preconceived ideas of how long they could stay.

The women who lived there called themselves the ‘Raging Charlies’: a play on the more difficult to pronounce ‘Regina Coeli’. The former orphanage in North Melbourne, which had also been a shelter for women run by the Legion of Mary, evolved into a unique place, bustling, chaotic and homely, with the shared kitchen at its heart.

Beloved pets were part of all the celebrations, and updates on their well-being were included in the quarterly newsletter with its ambiguous title: ‘Taking it like a woman.’

There were regular pool competitions against a similar community for homeless men; the Regina contingent were very disappointed when they regularly came off second best. When a football match was proposed against Sacred Heart Mission, the Regina women thought they should lift their efforts: ‘practising kicking and handballing and smoking a bit less on a daily basis’. It was reported that Sr Kaye Evansthe team’s full forward ended up with a black eye, and she didn’t even cry!’

In 1993, one of the women described her time at Regina: ‘I am surrounded by a house full of survivors from all types of past experiences…We feel sad and happy. We cry and laugh. We feel secure and loved. We have this because we are the lucky ones. There is no place in Australia to compare with our home here at Regina Coeli.’

Another women, Annie (pictured at right in 2018), had been addicted to heroin and living on the streets. Even so, her first impressions of Regina were not favourable. ‘I thought I didn’t belong here, it must be the wrong place. I asked where are the nuns that run the place. I couldn’t believe they were wearing civvies instead of habits. One of them was even smoking a cigarette!’

Annie’s resistance wore down, as almost without realising it, she became part of the community. ‘I couldn’t remember the last time I celebrated my birthday. The next thing I knew, they came out with a cake, and a present. I began to cry.’ She stayed at Regina for five years; when she passed away in 2019, her funeral was organised by the Sisters, with whom she had remained closely connected for decades.

In 2008, Regina Coeli came together with another complementary service, Mercy Care, to form  McAuley Community Services for Women. Regina Coeli was renamed McAuley House before the old building closed down with the creation of the state of the art McAuley House in Footscray.

In 2018, Annie attended the 10-year anniversary of McAuley’s establishment. The light-filled and spacious building might have seemed a world away from the shabbier, homelier – and more smoke-filled! – Regina Coeli that she remembered but Annie’s words showed that the essential spirit remained: ‘To get better, you need more than a roof over your head. You need friendships, and people around you, or you just feel empty inside. Coming to Regina Coeli was the day my life changed.’