Fighting homelessness for 40 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 Colchester Emergency Night Shelter, is a registered charity which has been supporting people who have found themselves homeless for almost 40 years. We provide emergency accommodation and help to those most in need across Colchester and Essex.

We offer more than just a bed and a meal, providing everything from housing and health advice to learning and support. Our aim is to move our residents on to permanent, safe independent living. We believe that having a home is a basic human right. Since opening, we have helped hundreds of people make fresh starts in their lives.

We underwent a major refurbishment in 2021, and now provide 15 ensuite bedrooms for some of the most vulnerable people within our community. We also provide 4 bedrooms in our move-on accommodation next door.

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.

CENS opens

CENS opens the doors of its 3-bedroomed Council-owned property, providing 6 beds for homeless men. Run by volunteers, it offers bed and breakfast for a maximum of 28 nights. Open from 7pm to 9am, it was often closed due to lack of cover.

New premises

Demand for the shelter rapidly increases, and with the help of Colchester Borough Council, the new and current premises on Alexandra Road become available, providing 15 beds, both twin and single rooms.

Lottery funding

Lottery funding enables CENS to purchase the property outright, and the policy develops to recognise the needs of homeless women. Services are offered to both men and women for the first time and CENS becomes one of the very first ‘open shelters’ in the UK.


The range of needs experienced by homeless people grows and changes, with an increase in alcohol and drug addiction as well as more complex mental health issues. Our services expand and our links with partner agencies strengthen to meet these demands. We develop even stronger links with other charities specialising in the supply of retail property and begin collaborating more closely with Council Housing associations to provide accommodation opportunities, including supported housing.

Al's Annexe opens

An additional building is purchased with move-on accommodation for 4 residents. Named Al’s Annexe after a former support worker, the accommodation allows those progressing well in the main shelter to move into more independent living quarters, whilst still benefiting from the support and assistance of CENS. Residents can learn to budget, buy food, cook and manage a home and ultimately get a job and save money for a deposit.

The pandemic

It was with huge sadness that CENS was forced to close in March 2020, due to the accommodation being non-compliant with Covid guidelines. There was a real boost to homelessness support from the Government at the start of the pandemic, with the launch of the ‘Everyone In’ scheme, but with this support coming to an end, and the likely devastating economic impact of the pandemic, combined with reduced funding for charities, a potential homelessness crisis is on the horizon. Therefore, our services are in higher demand than ever before.

New beginnings

At the end of 2020, the great work CENS has carried out to help combat homelessness was recognised and we secured funding from both the National Lottery Community Grant and Catalyst. This allowed us to refurbish the accommodation, making it Covid-compliant, enabling us to move on to the next exciting chapter. With the building work complete, we are now open once more, with some exciting changes in place.

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. 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. This will give them the best possible chance to move into permanent housing. We will also be able to monitor the progress of our 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 moving towards an holistic wraparound care experience, to fully prepare our residents for their next steps.
Adapted accommodation
Our 15 rooms are all now be single occupancy with personal shower room facilities. This makes the rooms Covid-compliant and offers 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. This 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.
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We receive funding from a variety of sources. A recent National Lottery grant enabled us to refurbish the shelter, ensuring that it is Covid-safe. We also receive funding from referrals via housing benefit. Additional funding comes through donations, fundraising and sponsorships. Donations are crucial to CENS, and as a small charity,  100% of your donations go directly to supporting the running of the shelter.

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 every penny donated will go towards helping a homeless person. We are a very small charity, with no advertising or marketing budgets, so all donations make a direct difference. Find out more about how to donate on our Donate Page.

The shelter has many costs from heating and maintenance to meals and support. We are constantly looking for new projects which will help us improve our services and maintain our successful track record of supporting our residents and help them move on to secure housing. This cannot be achieved without your generous donations. All money donated to CENS will go towards the running of the shelter and will directly help a homeless person.

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.

We currently have no volunteering vacancies. However, whether you’re looking to volunteer once or on a regular basis, there are occasionally volunteering opportunities available at CENS. Head to our Get Involved Page for more information or to get in touch. Check our Facebook page for updates.

Your CENS team

Everyone who works with CENS has a unique talent which they bring to the charity. This culminates 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 homeless people rebuild their lives.

Shelter staff

Marina Woodrow


Marina first came to CENS twenty years ago as a part-time Administrator. Over the years she trained across all areas of the project, whilst studying accountancy in the evenings and juggling a variety of positions. She rose to the role of Manager ten years ago and set about making some changes which would benefit the project and the community. These included purchasing the move-on property and overseeing the complete refurbishment of the shelter. She feels as passionate and committed to improving the lives of people finding themselves homeless as ever before.

Julie Wicks

Housing Co-ordinator & 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 enjoying working with the homeless community again and will use her new skills to support the residents.

Debbie Bell

Project Worker

Having worked in the Social Care sector for most of her adult life, Debbie joined the CENS team in 2017 as a 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 was one of her 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

Admin Assistant & Project Worker

Hannah volunteered at CENS six years ago, and was struck by the sense of community the project offered people during their most challenging times. When a vacancy for a Project Worker arose, she applied and was thrilled to become part of something she believed in. She is also studying to be a therapist and hopes this will help her support the residents further. One thing she has learned from her experience at CENS is that  homelessness really can happen to anyone.

photo of Samantha Warmington

Samantha Warmington

Day Support Worker

Samantha has worked in administration and marketing roles within the NHS and private medical sector for many years and has experience in supporting clinical teams. Samantha has a keen interest in improving people’s outcomes when facing adversity and is very excited to be takin on the role of support worker, and being part of such a caring, hardworking team here at CENS. Samantha will be helping residents with finding a place to call home. Working alongside them every step of the way, she will be supporting and empowering them to find the confidence to manage and sustain their own tenancies. 

Patsi Brown

Office Co-ordinator

Patsi has a background in third sector and social services administration with engagement. She joined CENS in 2017 as part time administrator alongside her other role with Christians Against Poverty. When the shelter reopened in 2021 she was keen to return, and rejoined full time in June 2022. Patsi is passionate about serving vulnerable people, in a way that promotes independence with a realistic path forward. ‘It is a real pleasure to be part of this hard-working team, seeing people break the cycle of homelessness, and turning lives around.’

Emma Cornell

Kitchen Co-ordinator

After running her own baking and confectionery business for five years, Emma was looking for a new challenge. The perfect role came up at CENS and she joined as the new Kitchen Coordinator in May 2023. She is passionate about food and cooking and loves the positive feedback from the delicious home-cooked food provided for the residents every evening. Emma enjoys working with the dedicated volunteers who help cook meals during the week and being a part of the great team at CENS.

“I have seen people come and go and there have been huge ups and downs, but nothing gives me more joy than when we say goodbye to someone who is moving on to secure accommodation, with a positive and hopeful future ahead of them. I feel privileged just to know that due to all the hard work by the team, along with ongoing support from everyone in the community, we are making a massive difference to the lives of those that need our support. We have many challenges ahead, given the cost of living crisis, but I know that we will continue to do our best to be here for those in need”

Marina Woodrow, Manager, CENS




Ray has been a Trustee since 2014. He first became a supporter when his company adopted CENS as their ‘Charity of the Year’. He helped initiate various fundraising events and was so impressed by the professional commitment of the staff and ambitions of the charity, that when the opportunity arose to become a Trustee, he unhesitatingly  joined.



Alison has been on the Board for over four years and is the current Chair. Having studied Law at  University, her career over the years has touched many areas of client- focused contracts including Public Health, Drugs and Alcohol Services, Domestic Violence and Fostering. She brings her academic knowledge and vocational experience to the Board. 



A member to the Board of Trustees for three years, Emily has an editorial and marketing background, having worked within magazine and digital publishing for many years. She brings her skills and knowledge to CENS at a time of huge change and development, and supports the marketing, digital and fundraising efforts as CENS moves forward. 



When Pete retired from his role as a civil servant, he worked for a housing charity as an advocate for people threatened with eviction. He started volunteering for CENS in 2018 and became a Trustee in 2022. Pete also works in the community as a befriender and English language coach, and volunteers for Colchester Refugee Action.



After graduating, Gerrard initially worked in investment
banking, before leaving the city and moving into property development, eventually establishing his own property development business. He started donating to CENS after learning about the charity and its work with homeless people, and became a Trustee and treasurer in 2016. 



Following a career break from her job as a software engineer, Clare became involved in affordable housing. She has been working in the Almshouse movement for over twenty years and is now the Clerk of 24 Almshouse charities. Through her charitable work, Clare witnessed the plight of homelessness and recognising a synergy with CENS, joined as Clerk in 2018.

What is homelessness?

There are many forms of homelessness. It can affect anyone at anytime. 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.

Positive move-ons since we reopened July 2021
The average of residents who have a positive move on from CENS
0 %
Increase in people trying to refer in since May 2023
0 %
CENS is running at 99% capacity since July 2023
0 %
Of residents coming to CENS have mental health issues
0 %
Of residents coming to CENS have drug issues
0 %
Of residents coming to CENS have alcohol issues
0 %

The causes

Rough sleeping is the most visible and harmful form of homelessness. However, sofa surfing or living in temporary or unstable accommodation, such as a hotel or a B&B are also forms of  ‘hidden homelessness’. These hidden homeless may be in less life-threatening situations, but they are still vulnerable, and are often only one step away from rough sleeping.
There are many reasons for people becoming homeless, including mental and physical health issues, problems with drugs or alcohol, relationship or family issues,  abuse, economic hardship and unemployment. Whatever the initial cause, it can be very hard to escape the revolving door of homelessness without professional help and support. That’s where we come in.

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 provides a range of services to people who are either homeless, in insecure accommodation, or at risk of homelessness in Colchester, Essex. Services onsite include: NHS healthcare, showering facilities, laundry, clothing and toiletries. They also offer a cafe, counselling, life skills including CV writing, cooking and budgeting. All services are free of charge.

Next Chapter

Next Chapter provides free and confidential services to support people who are currently experiencing or have previously experienced domestic abuse. with their support survivors of domestic abuse can reclaim their lives and choose the future they want. 

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.


A voluntary organisation working with refugees, asylum seekers and people with no recourse to public funds. Offering non-judgemental assistance to individuals and families in need.


The LIFE-FORCE Centre is a professional independent Counselling Service situated in the heart of Colchester, close to the town centre on East Hill. The Service is able to offer low cost adult counselling service for £9.50 per session depending on client suitability.   


The UK’s national network of charitable food redistributors. Taking good quality surplus food from across the food industry and delivering it to frontline charities and community groups.

CENS Essential Shopping List

  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Sugar
  • Hot chocolate
  • UHT milk
  • Squash
  • Vgetable oil
  • Gravy granules
  • Ketchup
  • Mayonnaise
  • Salt & pepper
  • Stock cubes
  • Herbs and spices
  • Tinned fruit
  • Tinned/packet custard
  • Baked beans
  • Tinned tuna
  • Tinned vegetables & potatoes
  • Tinned tomatoes
  • Kidney beans
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Jam, peanut butter, chocolate spread
  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Men & women’s deodorant
  • Men’s razors
  • Shave gel
  • Shower gel
  • Toothpaste
  • Cloths
  • Scourers
  • Washing up liquid
  • Surface cleaners
  • Floor cleaner
  • Bleach
  • Bathroom cleaners
  • Bin bags
  • Food caddy liners
  • Loo roll
  • Washing tablets
  • AA batteries
  • NEW single duvets
  • Pillows/pillowcases
  • Single duvet covers/sheets
  • Clean/good condition towels

Please no soups!
Thank you