A chance meeting with a homeless man set entrepreneur Alex Stephany on a new path. He talks about how Beam is changing the lives of homeless people.
Alex Stephany was already a successful entrepreneur when he struck up a friendship with a homeless man at his local Tube station. He bought him coffee, thermal socks and got to know a little about his life.
“He was in his forties. He would sit there on the steps, making sure he was in full view of the security camera above him, which made it less likely he would be attacked. He was illiterate and had never held a job.”
For a while, this was the extent of their relationship, but then the man disappeared, only to reappear some months later looking cleaner, but haggard. He’d had a heart attack, been patched up and was back on the streets. For Alex, the man’s position seemed more precarious than ever. He began to wonder what he could do.
Up to that point, Alex’s career had been that of a textbook successful entrepreneur. After studying at Oxford and picking up experience in a series of start-ups, he had built his first business, JustPark. JustPark matches drivers with parking spaces through its technology platform and Alex was CEO from 2012 to 2015. He remained as an adviser to the Board, but was searching for a new venture when he made his unusual friendship.
Rather than focusing on how it made him feel – pretty bad – he looked at how he might help solve the problem. He researched the causes of homelessness and the existing solutions, concluding that many were – of necessity - focused on short-term shelter and immediate needs and did not address the longer-term issues.
His idea was to crowdfund support for individual homeless people that would help them get off the streets more permanently. He recruited a friend with technical wizardry to build a website where people could tell their stories and outline their ambitions for the future. They might want to train to be a dental nurse, or a plumber, and the platform would help them raise the finance to do it. Beam has now been running since 2017.
There are complexities to navigate and Beam has to operate with a clear process. The people are referred from the local authorities or established charities and usually come from homeless shelters or temporary accommodation rather than direct from the streets. They need to be 18 and over and have had a minimum of 12 weeks abstinence from alcohol and drugs.
When they come to Beam, the team will ask them what resources they need to achieve their ambitions. That includes not only training but also childcare and transport. Together, they build a clear plan. Donations are split between individuals and an allocation to all live campaigns. The group runs a ‘transparency dashboard’, so donors can see the number of people who are supported into stable, skilled work.
He says the structure of the website helps people build their self-confidence, a real problem for those that have been on the streets or living in temporary accommodation for many years: “When people donate, they leave positive messages. People can see everyone who supports them and that’s really where the magic happens.” So far, the website has helped 151 people and only 13 people have come off the platform.
It was a new concept and securing finance has been tough, but he has been helped along the way with a number of awards and consistent support from entrepreneurs and high-net-worth individuals. At the moment, Beam is focused on London but there are plans to expand it to the rest of the country. The Covid-19 crisis is also likely to see more people end up on the streets.
“Homelessness is a vast problem – there are 190,000 people in homeless hostels and a further 120,000 children who are homeless or at risk. We’re excited to scale our technology to help more and more disadvantaged people.”
You can watch Alex’s TEDx Talk about a new way to tackle homelessness here.
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