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This Crowdfunding Site Is Helping UK's Homeless Become COVID-19 Key Workers

By Lin Taylor

LONDON, Feb 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — With hundreds of people dying of coronavirus every day in Britain, Jolantyte has wrestled with her decision to start a new career caring for COVID-19 patients in a London hospital as a single mother with two children.

But Jolantyte feels grateful for the fresh start, as she proudly dons her hospital gown and protective equipment each day, remembering how her family suffered after she lost her restaurant job last February and they became homeless.

"It was such a cold time and we were moving from (one) temporary accommodation (to another) till I was running out of my savings," Jolantyte, 33, who declined to publish her full name for privacy, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "My situation looked like it was without a solution."

Homelessness in England is at a 14-year high as COVID-19 decimates jobs. The charity Shelter said 253,000 people were living in temporary accommodation in December, 6,000 of whom lost their homes in the first three months of the pandemic.

Jolantyte was lucky to find a way out after two months of sofa surfing and staying in hostels, through Beam, an ethical business that helps homeless people find new careers by asking for online donations for training, childcare, or work clothes.

Through her profile on the crowdfunding site, Jolantyte was able to raise almost £3,000 ($4,096) in 13 days from about 200 people, enabling her to upskill and become a health care assistant, something she had always dreamed of doing.

"I feel really honoured. When you have two kids, you feel that (COVID-19) might affect you. But the other day I was telling myself that those people need to be treated. My job is to support their strong side so they can get better," she said.

Making a difference

Beam, a social enterprise founded in 2017, has helped secure work for more than 120 homeless people, mostly key worker positions, such as in supermarkets, delivery companies, and the state-run National Health Service, since March last year.

And demand is growing, said Beam founder Alex Stephany, with referrals from charities seeking support for homeless people increasing six-fold in 2020 compared to the year before.

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The economic chaos caused by COVID-19 is set to make for another difficult year, with unemployment hitting 5% in the three months to November — its highest in nearly five years — and more job losses predicted amid a tough lockdown.

Stephany, who was inspired to set up by the business after befriending a homeless man at a train station, believes that people without jobs and homes have a lot to offer.

"It's important that we as a society see homeless people as a group of people who have things to contribute," said Stephany. "What we're doing is filling these really important roles: people doing deliveries, people doing caring roles, people working in supermarkets — stuff that makes society function."

For Hanifah, who arrived in Britain from Uganda in 2016 and was granted refugee status just before the pandemic hit, finding a carer job through Beam was worth the wait.

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As single mother of one, Hanifah said she had also been grappling with the health risks, but felt proud to be making a difference in her newly-adopted country.

"When I go out, I may come back with the virus and spread it in my family — that's the first thing that keeps coming into your head," she said.

"But on the other hand, you're like, 'These people need me'," she continued. "If I say I'm going to stay home, how are they going to cope? How are they going to manage? So you need to make the decision: come what may, but I have to be out there." 

(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)