over 35 years
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.
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.
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 20 beds, both twin and single rooms.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
After graduating from London Guildhall University, Gerrard initially worked in investment banking, before leaving the city and moving into property development. Whilst working, he began training in his father’s accountancy firm, and eventually established his own property development business. His parents both had a strong social ethos, with a focus on inclusivity, and it is this which shaped his outlook in life and led him to become a trustee and treasurer at a local Almshouse charity in his 20s. Gerrard started donating to CENS after learning about the charity and its work through engaging with homeless people within Colchester, and was invited to be a Trustee in 2016.
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 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.
Phoenix Alcohol Project
Providing support, advice and information around alcohol use for adults living in Essex.
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.
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.