Supporting the homeless for
over 35 years
More than just a bed and a meal
Providing Support, Safety and Security

What is CENS?

Colchester Engagement & Next Steps (CENS), formerly known as the Colchester Emergency Night Shelter, is a registered charity which has been supporting the homeless for over 35 years, providing emergency accommodation and help to those most in need across Essex and Suffolk.

We now offer so much more than just a bed and a meal – from housing and health to learning and support, we aim to help the homeless move on to permanent, independent living. We believe that having a home is a basic human right, and since opening, we have helped hundreds of people make a fresh start in their lives. Unfortunately, at the start of the pandemic we were forced to close, but in January 2021 we underwent a major refurbishment and are now open once more, with some major improvements in place.

Where we've been

CENS has been operating for almost 40 years, and in that time has seen a great deal of change, development and progress in the fight against homelessness. Here’s our journey.

1984 CENS opens
1991 New premises
1995 Lottery funding
2000 Expansion
2018 Al's Annexe opens
2019 The pandemic
2021 New beginnings

Where we're going

Although our ethos, passion and determination remains the same, we will be adapting our services and taking this opportunity to offer greater wraparound care to support our residents.

New name
We’ve changed our name to Colchester Engagement & Next Steps to better encapsulate all that we do here at CENS. We are so much more than a night shelter and wanted to reflect this in our name – our aim is to engage and collaborate, support and care, not only for everyone that walks through our doors, but with all our supporters, partners and sponsors helping our residents take those next steps towards independence.
Longer opening hours
We have moved from being a night shelter to remaining open 7 days a week and for longer hours. This will enable us to better support and safeguard our residents and to protect them from negative influences, giving them the best possible chance to progress towards permanent housing. We will also be able to monitor the progress of our individual residents and provide them with all their nutritional and wellbeing needs.
Additional support
Being open for longer will allow us to offer a much greater level of support. By working closely with our partner agencies and other charities, we are hoping to move towards an holistic wraparound care experience, to fully prepare our residents for their next steps.
Adapted accomodation
Our 14 rooms will all now be single occupancy with personal shower room facilities. This will not only make the rooms Covid-compliant, but will also offer more privacy and dignity for our residents as they move towards independent living.
Health & wellbeing room
Our grant from Catalyst has enabled us to build a new support facility, which gives our residents a safe space for both mental and physical treatments and therapies, in order to help them cope with life once outside the safety of the shelter.


We get funding from a variety of sources. We are lucky to have recently been awarded a National Lottery grant which has enabled us to refurbish the shelter and ensure that it is Covid-safe. We also receive funding from referrals via housing benefit. Additional funding comes through donations, fundraising and sponsorships.

The residents do not directly pay rent, but the shelter receives payment through their housing benefit. In addition we request that residents pay a £4 per night fee, which covers all their meals and enables us to pay for heating, electricity, water, council tax etc.

CENS is a not-for-profit organisation, but in order for us to survive and run the shelter in a safe and efficient manner, we need to ensure that we can cover the costs related to keeping the shelter open. We ask our residents to contribute a small amount of money to their living costs, as we believe this shows a commitment from them, as well as enabling them to take the first steps towards budgeting and money management.

If you see someone homeless, you should contact Streetlink, either via their app, their website, or you can call them direct on 0300 500 0914. If the situation is an emergency, then don’t hesitate to call 999 for an ambulance or police. Head to the Homeless Hub for more information, support and to get in touch with CENS.
We always welcome donations and will ensure that any money donated will go towards helping a homeless person. Find out more about how to donate on our Donate Page.

The shelter has many costs from heating and maintenance to meals and support. All money donated to CENS will go towards the running of the shelter and will directly help a homeless person.

Food and care parcels are gratefully received, although it may be a good idea to check with us in advance to see what we are most in need of. We will often post specific requests on our social media platforms, so make sure you are following us.

Whilst we do not request clothing donations, there may be certain times of the year that we require particular items. We will put a call out for these across our social media platforms.

Whether you’re looking to volunteer once or on a regular basis and whatever your skills and interests, there are often a huge variety of volunteering opportunities available here at CENS. Head to our Get Involved Page for more information or to get in touch.

Your CENS team

Everyone who works with CENS has a unique talent which they bring to the charity, culminating in a diverse range of skills, experience, backgrounds and education. However, one thing they all have in common is their passion and commitment to helping support the homeless to rebuild their lives.

Shelter staff

Marina Woodrow

Grace Bettinelli

Support Worker

Currently studying a BA Hons in Social Work, Grace feels passionate about supporting the services offered to the local community and has experience in working with children and families to promote positive change. Her work with CENS has taught her how important time management and multi-tasking are and she has learned to home in on the skills of others and delegate – especially when it comes to the washing up! She wants to help make CENS a positive experience for all those coming through the door.

Gemma Lodge

Support Worker

With a diverse background in working with families and young people to deliver positive outcomes across a range of areas, Gemma’s previous experience includes child health, education welfare, probation and domestic abuse support. This experience supports an academic background in Psychology, giving her a greater understanding of the issues surrounding homelessness

Julie Wicks

Project Worker

Julie came to work at CENS in 2017 as a Project Worker supporting residents overnight at the shelter. Whilst CENS was closed for refurbishment, she worked for MIND alongside the NHS crisis team, supporting people struggling with mental health issues, which she found challenging and rewarding. She is now looking forward to getting back to working with the homeless community and will use her new skills to support the residents.

Debbie Bell

Project Worker

Having worked in the Social Care sector most of her adult life, Debbie joined the CENS team in 2017 as Project Worker after leaving the National Probation Service as a Programmes Tutor. She soon found that working within the CENS team supporting residents from all walks of life one of my most rewarding job roles, and she is excited to be back at a time when there are so many positive changes taking place.

Hannah Tudor

Project Worker

Hannah started work as a volunteer at CENS six years ago, making lunches for the residents. She was struck by the sense of community the project offered people at their most challenging times. When a vacancy for a Project Worker came up, she applied and was thrilled to leave her office job and become part of something she believed in. She recently returned after being a stay-at-home mum and believes the support offered since the refurbishment is even better. She is also studying to be a therapist and hopes these new skills will help her support the residents further. One thing she has learned from her experience at CENS is that whatever your background – homelessness really can happen to anyone.




Ray, a town planner and former Company Director, now semi-retired, has been a trustee since 2014 and was Chair from 2016 for 5 years. He first became a supporter when his company adopted CENS as the ‘Charity of the Year’ and initiated various fundraising events, ranging from bake sales to cycling events. Ray was so impressed by the professional commitment of the staff and the structure and ambitions of the charity, that when the opportunity arose to become a Trustee, he unhesitatingly joined the Board and has been fully devoted to helping the homeless ever since. In his spare time, Ray enjoys walking, cycling and watching football, as well as being readily available to play for any 5-a-side teams.



Alison has been on the Board for over 2 years and was recently appointed Chair. Having returned to education at the age of 33, Alison studied Law at the University of Essex and recently passed professional qualifications relating to her current role for the Local Authority. Her career has touched many areas of client- focused contracts including Public Health, Drugs and Alcohol Services, Domestic Violence and Fostering and she brings her academic knowledge and vocational experience to the Board. She is Captain of her local rowing team, a member of her local litter-picking group and active supporter of Foodbank Projects, as well as a keen paddleboarder and dog owner.



Another new member to the Board of Trustees, Emily has an editorial and marketing background, having worked within magazine and digital publishing for many years. An expert in print, digital and social media, she brings her skills and knowledge to CENS at a time of huge change and development for the charity, and will support our marketing and fundraising efforts as we move forward. She enjoys heading various local community groups, as well as keeping fit through running and walking and cycling.



Pete, a former civil servant, has lived in Colchester for 30 years. Once retired, he took an active interest in homelessness, initially working for a housing charity as an advocate for people threatened with eviction. He then started working as a volunteer for CENS in July 2018, preparing evening meals for the residents. In February 2022, he joined the Board of Trustees and has become an invaluable member of the team. Pete also works in the community as a befriender and English language coach, alongside working in the community as a volunteer for Colchester Refugee Action.

Our partners

We couldn’t be the success we are without the support, help and collaboration of our partner agencies, organisations and charities.
Here are just a few of them.

Beacon House

Beacon House is a specialist, innovative and creative therapeutic service for young people, families and adults. With a special interest in working with individuals of all ages who have experienced trauma and loss, we are passionate about offering safe and effective therapies in a way that enables people to re-build their lives following stress and adversity.

Christians Against Poverty

Christians Against Poverty (CAP) provides free debt help and local community groups across the UK. Our free services, run with local churches, provide practical and emotional support and show people that there is always hope.

Citizens Advice Bureau

CAB is an organisation that provides members of the public with free advice and information on matters relating to civil law and rights.

Colchester Borough Homes

CBH aim to be a trusted choice for local housing, property and community services, by delivering services that are valued by their customers and serve communities.

Colchester Foodbank

A foodbank project founded by local churches and community groups, working together towards stopping hunger in the local area.


Emmaus supports people to work their way out of homelessness, providing meaningful work, training, support and a stable home for as long as someone needs it.

Essex Integration

Providing practical help to refugees, asylum seekers and migrant workers throughout Essex.

Nacro Housing

Helping disadvantaged young people and adults reach their full potential in life. Understanding that good quality housing is often the first step to unlocking the potential by laying the foundations for stability and improvement.

Open Road Visions

Empowering a diverse range of individuals, families and communities to lead healthy and more meaningful lives, free from addiction, offending behaviour and disadvantage, to ensure healthier, happier lifestyles.

Phoenix Alcohol Project

Providing support, advice and information around alcohol use for adults living in Essex.


Aiming to positively transform people and their communities, helping people achieve their goals and change their lives for the better.

Sanctuary Housing

One of the largest social landlords in the country, providing many types of affordable and social housing for a wide range of people.

Wave Length

The leading national loneliness charity, successfully helping prevent loneliness through the provision of technology.


The Workers’ Educational Association is a charity dedicated to bringing high quality professional education into the heart of communities, by delivering friendly, accessible and enjoyable courses for adults from all walks of life.

Youth Enquiry Service

Providing confidential, non-judgemental and informal service for young people who are facing difficulties in their lives.

Homelessness can affect anyone

There are many forms of homelessness and it can affect anyone and everyone at any stage of their life. The causes and effects are complicated and varied and often so intrinsically linked that a cyclical situation can be created which is hard to break free from.

The number of people sleeping rough on a single night in Autumn 2020, despite Everyone In scheme
The number of homeless people who died in the UK in 2020 - a rise of 37% since 2019
0 %
The number of homeless people either taking drugs or recovering from drug related problems
0 %
The number of homeless people reporting a physical health problem
The number of homeless households living in temporary accommodation in December 2020
0 million
households are denied the right to a safe home or are threatened with losing it
people sleep on the streets on any given night

The causes

Rough sleeping is probably the most visible and harmful form of homelessness, but sofa surfing or living in temporary or unstable accommodation such as a hotel or a B&B are also forms of what can be termed ‘hidden homelessness’. These hidden homeless may be experiencing less life-threatening situations, but they are still menatally and physically challenging and can eventually lead to rough sleeping.
There may be many reasons why someone can find themselves homeless, including mental and physical health issues, problems with drugs or alcohol, relationship or family issues, including physical and mental abuse and economic hardship and unemployment.