Meet the young artist who went from sleeping on the streets to designing for Ted Baker in one year

Harriet Brewis

Jamal slept on a church floor on the night of his 19th birthday.

After weeks of moving from shelter to shelter he didn’t feel like celebrating.

A month earlier, a conflict in the flat where he was living forced him onto the streets. With nothing but a bag of clothes, the teen took shelter outside a nearby pub and considered his options.

“I was skinny, I felt weak, it was all hitting me so hard and I knew it was going to hurt me so much, that I just thought I might as well end it,” he told the Standard.

Two of Jamal's drawings, which were exhibited at the Living Centre in north London

Estranged from his friends since dropping out of sixth form college – acute dyslexia made reading and writing too difficult, he says – the only people he thought might miss him were his teaching assistants from secondary school.

“I hadn’t seen the TAs in about two years, but they honestly saved my life.”

The women, who used to help him with his schoolwork and bring cream for his eczema, sprung to his aid.

Justine Spruyt, 42, was in South Africa when she heard about Jamal’s troubles. She called around various London B&Bs and found one that would take him for a few days, paying for the room over the phone.

There was only so much financial support and guidance the women could give, however. So for months afterwards, Jamal moved between B&Bs, temporary shelters in church halls, and more rough sleeping on the streets.

Jamal with artist David Tovey, who became a fan of his art

“I ran around with some bad crowds, got shot at, things I can’t really talk about. But things were so dark, and sometimes only the wrong people would help me. I stayed alive for people like Justine and my little sister back at home.

“I dealt with things by drawing, it was the only thing that helped. Just sitting down and blacking out and doodling. I couldn’t handle that my life had become this, but drawing helped me escape.”

Eventually, Jamal registered with homeless charity C4WS, which found him a more permanent room in a Camden hostel.

C4WS welfare officer, Sam Forsdike, soon picked up on Jamal’s creative skills and showed his sketches to artist and campaigner David Tovey.

Impressed by his work, Mr Tovey invited Jamal to design the invitation for a special fundraising event. The evening, hosted by Keir Starmer MP, was titled ‘We need to talk about Rough Sleeping’ and was to change the 19-year-old’s life.

The invitation designed by Jamal which led to his first encounter with Ted Baker ()

To make sure he looked suitably smart for the occasion, C4WS provided Jamal with clothes donated by fashion retailer Ted Baker.

Peter McDonough, senior historian for the brand, was a guest at the event. He spotted the young man’s outfit and began chatting to him.

From there came the offer of a week’s work experience at Ted Baker’s head office, which then turned into two weeks.

“I was coming up with ideas they actually liked, which threw me. I didn’t understand. They were telling me they would put some of my stuff in stores and I was like, what? This can’t be real.

“The thing was, I was enjoying work so much. It was the highlight of my day. I couldn’t face the thought of it ending and just returning to depression in the hostel.”

After the second week, Mat Ashby, Director of the company’s Special Projects team, turned to Jamal and said: “We can’t ask you to come for a third week without paying you – would you be OK if we hired you?”

Jamal had to run to the bathroom to cry. It was the weekend of his 20th birthday – just over a year after he first found himself sleeping rough.

From left: Peter McDonough, Jamal Reilly, Sam Forsdike at the 'We need to talk about Rough Sleeping event' in November

Mr Ashby told the Standard: “Jamal joined the department on a temporary basis 2 months ago and has proved such an asset that we are going to employ him full time starting next week.

“He is eager to learn,enthusiastic and perhaps most importantly has an air of positivity that has made him a very popular member of the team after just a short time with us.

“Given Jamal’s eagerness to learn and his winning personality, I expect him to make a great contribution to Ted Baker.”

Jamal is still living in the hostel but is due to move out into a flat in Kentish Town next week.

“I don’t know how this has happened. I wake up and still can’t believe it. I've never done anything at work I haven't enjoyed, all the people I work with are so good to me.

"I rush to get to work in the morning and don't want to leave in the evening. That's not right, is it?"