Four years ago, I got to know a homeless man outside my local tube station. I’d buy him cups of coffee and pairs of socks when it was getting cold. At one point, he disappeared for weeks on end. When he reappeared, he looked years older: he told me he’d had a heart attack and had just come out of hospital. Despite the well-meaning gestures from myself and no doubt others, he was in a worse position than ever.
So I began to ask myself what it would take to make a lasting difference to this man’s life. He had never had a job, and was illiterate. For me, the answer lay in empowering him with the skills and training needed to sustainably support himself. Of course, that would cost far more than coffees or socks – but what if everyone chipped in?
From here, the idea of crowdfunding employment training for homeless people was born. Over the following nine months, I developed the model working with homeless people and charities. And since launching in late 2017, more than 600 homeless Londoners have used Beam’s crowdfunding platform to secure stable jobs and homes. It’s been heartwarming to see hundreds of strangers change so many lives, whether that’s funding someone’s life-changing training or rental deposit or sharing a message of support on our newsfeed.
One story that sticks in my mind is Regina’s. Regina became homeless along with her young daughter after escaping an abusive relationship. Unemployed and worried about her future, Regina was referred to Beam by homeless charity St Mungo’s back in 2018. With the support of her Beam caseworker, Regina launched a crowdfunding campaign with the goal of becoming a dental nurse. She was able to raise £3,920 from 598 members of the public to cover the cost of her training, travel and childcare. Her life has been completely transformed, which she talks about in her TEDxTalk.
Commenting on her experiences, Regina said:
“I’d always dreamed of becoming a dental nurse and was able to raise nearly £4,000 from 600 strangers through Beam. I started to receive heartwarming messages from people I’d never met. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was finally being treated like a human being. One of them was a young girl, who asked for her sixth birthday to make a £25 donation to my campaign instead of getting a birthday present. The outpouring of love was overwhelming. People were calling me brave and courageous. They told me I was a good mum, a positive role model to my daughter. It was like I was being given the world’s biggest hug. I’m now 30 years old, in a job I love. My story changed when people listened and empowered me to be my best self.”
Sharing the success stories of people like Regina is a huge part of what drives the Beam community. We now have more than 15,000 supporters who donate and leave messages of encouragement on our news feed, forming a vital support network for our beneficiaries. Supporters, whether individuals or companies, also get their own impact page – here’s mine – showcasing the number of people they’ve supported and where they’re at on their journey. We also share more than 100 live data points relating to our impact on our transparency dashboard.
Beyond this, we’ve spent a lot of time understanding the economic impact of Beam’s crowdsourced model at scale. Last year, we released an Impact Report, which showed that for every homeless person Beam supports into work, the taxpayer saves on average £31,300 due to a reduction in welfare spending and additional taxable income. The report also showed that if Beam’s services were expanded to support 600,000 people (the number the National Audit Office states are long-term unemployed but close to work), we have the potential to save the taxpayer £10bn.
Of course, in order to get even close to that figure, we need to grow Beam considerably over the next few years. As a social enterprise, our growth target will always be focused on “social metrics” rather than financial metrics: the number of people who move into stable jobs and homes through Beam. Right now, 75 per cent of people who launch a crowdfunding campaign with Beam go on to sustain work, after being unemployed for an average of five and a half years. We also get paid by London councils to achieve these outcomes on a payment-by-results basis. This means the more people we help, the more we grow as a business. That keeps us laser focused on providing the highest quality service that is truly creating meaningful change in people’s lives.
The next step in our growth journey involves launching Beam in more cities both here in the UK and overseas. Wherever the need is greatest, we want to be providing access to our service for free to those who need it. We’re also exploring how we can support other disadvantaged groups, such as people with disabilities, care leavers and ex-offenders. This is about using tech and an innovative new services model to create equality of opportunity at scale, so that everyone can fulfil their potential.
Homelessness is a complex issue, but humankind has solved many complex ones and my belief is we can make homelessess a thing of the past faster than most people think. Even more so if we bring the right people around a problem and are radically collaborative. Beam has already hired 25 passionate and ambitious problem solvers from the worlds of tech, social enterprise and business and we plan to grow our team by a further 25 people this year. I’m excited about what the future holds – both for the impact Beam is having on some of the most marginalised members of our communities and for how we can encourage others to use business and tech for good.