Activism

Beam is harnessing local communities to help homeless people back to work

It’s tech for good, it’s a team effort and it’s opening doors for some of the UK’s most disadvantaged people

London entrepreneur Alex Stephany thinks tech is key to getting people into work and eradicating poverty. His model, Beam, uses an online platform to rally a homeless person’s community closer around them until they have the skills to support themselves.

Beam is a crowdfunding platform developed by Stephany, whose passion for the so-called sharing economy led him to write a book on the concept and even advise the city of Seoul on it. The project opens up opportunities for homeless people, who might otherwise be shut out of work, by fundraising for them to attend training which will help them get into employment. Beam members tell their own stories in their own words and their progress can be
tracked online while they crowdfund themselves back into work.

Jon Sparkes, Crisis chief executive, said employment plays an important role in reducing social exclusion. “Homelessness has a devastating impact on people’s lives, causing feelings of exclusion and isolation from society. This can have serious knock-on effects on people’s ability to get into work and leave homelessness behind for good.

“Specialist services providing coaching, combined with help that addresses other problems like housing and mental health issues, are vital to helping homeless people into employment. Some people will need relatively little support to find and keep a job, but others, especially those with a lack of skills, training, and qualifications, or who experience mental health issues and disabilities, will need much more.”

That’s why Beam works with charities that help provide the extra support some homeless people need before they launch their crowdfunder.

When a person is referred to Beam, a caseworker is assigned to build them a personalised career plan, developing their campaign page to attract support online. But this is no faceless tech venture – its beneficiaries are front and centre, telling their own difficult stories.

When her mother was killed, it became unsafe for Decoda to stay in her native Jamaica. In 2013, she was forced to shelter with relatives in the UK. She was unable to work while waiting for residential status and when she became pregnant there was no longer enough space for her in her aunt’s house. Decoda and her baby daughter ended up living in a hostel. That’s when a social worker told her about Beam.

“One day I was doing a training workshop and my support worker said to me that I had potential,” Decoda says. “One of her colleagues said because I was classified as homeless it would be a good programme to be on. I started reading about it and I thought to myself, if it means this is going to take me further and direct me on the right path, why not give it a try?”

There’s evidence of spending on vulnerable people delivering results for the economy later. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that the total costs of supporting homeless people into housing between 2018 and 2041 would be £19.3bn – but would deliver benefits of £53.9bn.

Decoda adds: “When Anna told me my campaign was up I was so excited. I would check every single day and night, before going to bed just to see what was going on. I’d been five years not doing anything and now was the time for me to move forward.”

After a few months, Decoda was fully backed by people who wanted to help her work towards a better life for her and her daughter. She has been grafting on her course ever since.

“It’s been really good, the teachers are impressed and I’m proud of myself as well because I have never done any health and social care course before. I’m looking forward to the next stage, which later this year will be university.”

Sixty-one people have been funded so far, 12 of whom have moved into permanent housing. The range of jobs is diverse – Beam has created electricians, digger operators, gardeners, crane riggers, dental nurses, accountants and hairdressers.

A growing number of members are – like Decoda – single mothers, who are eight times more likely to experience homelessness than couples with children. They often face obstacles they can’t overcome alone, like childcare costs, which mean they can’t afford training or apply for jobs.

While homeless figures in the UK are in the tens of thousands, Beam attracts people who want to contribute because it helps homeless people to help themselves. It’s a strictly practical strategy, outlining the pragmatic but simple steps needed to turn their lives around.

Decoda’s determination to give back is also the reason she wants to become a social worker.

“I want to support individuals and families through difficult times,” she explains. “You’ve got a lot of vulnerable people so I would like to save them from harm and improve other people’s lives, especially young children.”

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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