When Ray’s father died, it was months until the sudden loss hit home. But when it did, things spiralled out of control.
Within weeks, Ray turned to the bottle, eventually losing work as a professional plasterer, which meant he couldn’t keep up with his rent. Then, turfed out from his flat, he ended up sofa-surfing.
“But you can’t do that forever,” Ray told HuffPost UK. “So then I went and bought a tent.”
That was in 2015. For over two years, Ray was homeless. He pitched his tent alongside rivers and in south London’s huge Richmond Park. “I never slept in shop doorways or anything,” Ray said. “I tried to keep private.”
After being referred to local mental health services, Ray found himself at a wellbeing centre – which accelerated his efforts to get clean.
“I’m 16 months clean now,” he said. But Ray’s life would be transformed still further by a little-known, fast growing tech start-up which aims to use crowdfunding to change homeless people’s prospects.
Beam.org is a platform much like GoFundMe or JustGiving but instead focuses on a select group of homeless people who are studying for qualifications.
“I saw a presentation about Beam and they asked whether we had ideas about qualifications,” Ray – who by now was living in a dry house temporarily – explained. “They did a check on me and that was fine, and I went to more meetings and it took off from there.”
His dedicated caseworker, Anna, helped Ray build his profile on the website and choose the right qualification, in his case a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) in tiling – an in-demand skill which could see Ray return to building sites once more.
“In five years time, I want to be running my own business, driving my own van, and coming home to my own place,” his profile, which launched in April 2018, read. “With your help, I know these hopes can become real life.”
Ray’s fund had a target of £3,515 for all his expenses and for the qualification itself, with the target met following donations from 433 supporters.
A feed of donations, familiar to anyone who has used JustGiving, carries messages such as “Excited for you. Enjoy the learning,” and “You can do it Ray!”. Amounts given range from £5 to £234.
By December, Ray had completed his initial qualification and been registered as a tiler and plasterer – the NVQ certifies him as being able to work accurately and safely.
“Registration means I can go out on a commercial building site and do private sector work,” Ray said. “I’d never had a qualification in tiling before. I had a City & Guilds in plastering but that is outdated now.”
With some more work to put together a portfolio and finish off an exam, the NVQ also means Ray’s earning potential has increased – with top wages of tilers as high as £19 an hour.
“Without this I’d be struggling,” Ray said. “Now I’ve the opportunity to do two different trades. I’m even looking forward now to moving out of temporary accommodation and into my own flat.”
For Alex Stephany, Beam’s founder and CEO, Ray’s story is the sort of success he dreamed of when he thought of the idea for a homeless crowdfunding platform two years ago.
“I thought, what if we all chipped in? What if we crowdfunded employment training for homeless people?” he said.
Stephany believes that crowdfunding is a very effective way of getting people into work, partly because it removes financial barriers like transport, childcare or tools. But more than that, it also builds a support network through the funders.
“Over 200 people fund each members’ campaign, people from all around the UK, on average, and they become the new support network.
“Having that crowd of people who have donated and sent messages is really, really powerful in terms of building people’s confidence and self-belief.”
The enterprise has received the backing of the Mayor of London’s office and has already won a string of awards.
It’s little surprise that government agencies and City Hall are keen for new ideas to help homelessness. Statistics released last month confirmed that 597 people died on Britain’s streets last year, an increase of 24% on 2016.
There are currently three “live” campaigns on the site, which Stephany said had helped 48 homeless people since its launch.
“We know homelessness is an issue that affects of all genders, ages, and ethnicities, and you can see that on our platform,” Stephany added.
For Ray, it’s the network of those who have donated and sent supportive messages which has been of equal value to the money.
“I’m overwhelmed by the support,” he said. “They have helped me reach my goals.”