To mark International Women’s Day, we catch up with Pernille Petersen, CEO of the Haven Project. Pernille was one of the very first volunteers at CENS and went on to become one of the most successful and influential coordinators the charity has seen.

On cold, dark nights in the mid 80’s it was not uncommon for someone homeless in Colchester to seek refuge in a vicarage or a presbytery. In those days, there was little that could be done to help apart from maybe buying them a ticket to the nearest shelter in Ipswich.

This lack of available care for the homeless became a key issue for Churches Together and led to the launch of the soup run-on and the establishment in 1984, of the Colchester Night Shelter. Pernille was one its first volunteers, and in 1988, after a shaky start with intermittent closures, the first coordinator was appointed, by which time Pernille was on the board of directors.

The first premises were a 3-bedded council house, the layout of which meant the shelter could only accept men. But in the Autumn of 1989, the coordinator contacted Pernille and requested she go and see a couple of new admissions, suspecting one of them was a woman. “When I saw her lying in bed with a cap on, we agreed to talk in the morning about how she had come to be in this situation.” Says Pernille. The woman kindly agreed to be interviewed by the County Standard and it became headline news that a homeless woman had nowhere to go for help.

This inspired Pernille to launch a vigorous campaign for bigger and better premises. A property was found and refurbished by the Colchester Borough Council (CBC), but as the work neared completion the coordinator decided to move on. Pernille applied for the role, which was advertised nationwide, and in 1990 she was appointed.

Her first task was to oversee the completion of the new Night Shelter and to ensure that safeguarding was in place to help both vulnerable men and women. They began serving an evening meal and started implementing resettlement work.

But perhaps more significantly, they began working closely with the Colchester Housing Forum, which included other housing providers, day services and the CBC. This collaboration initiated a number of innovative provisions such as the Winter Reserve Project, the Rent Deposit Guarantee Scheme and regular research programs among the homeless to ensure their needs were being met. Pernille led much of this work, in collaboration with CBC’s Phil Harris, and on the back of the research, Beacon House was born. “Colchester’s provision became so successful that there was speculation from less charitable quarters, that the homeless were deliberately migrating there.” Pernille remembers.

In 2003, CBC appointed a team which included Phil and Pernille, to produce a ‘Tackling Homeless Strategy’. This was to become a model of good practice and CBC was given an award for its innovative work.

The Night Shelter, meanwhile, continued to improve its own services as well as wider services within the borough, and Pernille’s commitment, dedication and success were publicly recognised when she was awarded an MBE. “It was a privilege to work with so many dedicated people and I found it immensely rewarding. I was amazed when I was awarded an MBE or my work, which I saw as a commitment and joy.” Says Pernille.

Having worked at the Colchester Night Shelter, she became familiar with people living with Personality Disorder and this became her new challenge when she was appointed CEO of The Haven in 2013. But she has never lost her interest in the Colchester Night Shelter nor her admiration for the current leader Marina Woodrow. “It’s great that the shelter is undergoing a much-needed refurbishment to enable it to open once more in May, when I’m sure its services will be in more demand than ever and I know that it will go from strength-to-strength with Marina at the helm.”

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