FEATURE-'I feel lucky every day' - crowdfunding Britain's homeless into work and homes

Opinion Tuesday 24/April/2018 15:37 PM
By: Times News Service

By Lee Mannion LONDON, April 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After a decade spent waking up on the street, in police cells or in hospital due to drinking, Joe - who is now 37 - knew he had to change. His addiction meant he had missed many appointments to see his daughter, and he felt he was out of chances. "By the end of it I was sick of it. I was nigh on wanting to end my own life, and when I made some real plans to do that, that's when I got a reality slap," said Joe. After going through detox, getting clean and moving to a homeless hostel, he had another problem: how to save the 1,100 pounds ($1,534) he needed to pay for qualifications to work as a crane-rigger on construction sites while living on welfare. But in less than a week, 19 strangers contributed the money for the course. Joe has been sober for a year, is in full-time employment, and is looking forward to travelling abroad to Turkey with his daughter for the first time for a holiday. He also left the homeless hostel and has his own place. Joe was the first person to be crowdfunded through Beam, a social enterprise that helps people move on from temporary accommodation. "I'm forever grateful for it. It's actually amazing, it really is. I feel lucky every day," Joe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. WORKING CAPITAL Homelessness has risen in England for more than six years, with 80,000 families in temporary accommodation, including more than 120,000 children, government data shows. Including those sleeping rough, the charity Shelter says as "a conservative estimate" 307,000 people are homeless in Britain. Alex Stephany, the founder of Beam, was moved to start the social enterprise after wondering how he could have the most impact on homelessness. "I felt very powerless. For me the problem was: I have five pounds ($7) in my pocket and I want an individual to move from being homeless to not being homeless. What were my options? Very limited. A coffee, a sandwich, money?" "I want homeless people who have passions and ambitions and talents to have some of the same opportunities that I had - to learn new skills and maybe build a new career for themselves. So why couldn't we invest in their futures?" Stephany said. Having previously raised five million pounds through equity crowdfunding site Crowdcube for his car-parking technology start-up JustPark, Stephany decided there was an opportunity to crowdfund for homeless people. MAKING CONNECTIONS Beam's website has a short story about each beneficiary - known as a member - a breakdown of how much it will cost for them to get the qualifications for their desired job, and a target schedule for their path back to work. Members are referred by homeless charities. Donors, of whom there have been 1,500 to date, can support individuals or spread their contribution across everyone on the site. They can also send messages of support to individuals. It is that personal aspect that prompted Darren Lampert, 41, a business analyst for a commodities broker, to set up a regular monthly contribution of 20 pounds. "It feels like I'm helping individual people rather than just a good cause. When I'm donating, I'm not donating to Beam, I'm donating to Tony who wants to become a plumber. You develop empathy for their situation," he said. Lampert noticed more homeless people after moving to London. He said the clear plan for individuals on the Beam website is why he has given more than he would have done with a regular contribution to a charity. "When you see the progress it's tempting to log back on and add a bit extra to push them through to funding. The stories are what make you click and donate," said Lampert. Beam's business model means 90 percent of donations go to the members' work schemes, with the remainder paying for Beam's overheads and staff of five. Stephany hopes that in due course every cent of the money donated through crowdfunding will go to the beneficiaries. "We are building a model that we think will help thousands of disadvantaged people train up and get into work. We are hoping that local government will commission this service because it will create lots of savings for taxpayers," he said. After launching in September 2017, Beam has helped 27 people to date, with two having found jobs and most of the others in training. Those who are employed, like Joe, are asked if they want to "pay it forward" - to set up their own regular donation to help others like them. "I know what the money is going to do. I know it's going to help people," said Joe. "I'll be giving them money every month until the day I die." (Reporting by Lee Mannion @leemannion, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)