When 57-year-old Bob’s marriage broke down and he lost his business – he turned to drink to numb the pain and soon found himself homeless. He even considered taking his own life.
“I set up a small gardening business and employed a friend to help me run it, and he took my missus away from me and then the business, because I couldn’t read or write. I lost everything – the missus, the kids, the grandkids, the lot,” explained Bob, who moved back to his hometown of Reading shortly after the split.
Bob secured a room in a local pub and found work as a lorry driver – but the emotional impact of the previous months started to take effect, and he began drinking to excess. “I wasn’t interested in anything – just going to work so I could get some money to have beer. I could sit and watch a game of football and have four or five pints before the match had even started, and I’d carry on throughout,” Bob said. “Then I’d go across to the garage, get something to eat, come back and drink another 12, 13 pints. I’d be plastered but it was the only way I felt relaxed.”
Bob’s chaotic behaviour lost him his accommodation and with nowhere else to go, he started living in his car until he was unable to pay for tax and insurance. “I was forced to live rough around Reading,” said Bob. “I was sleeping on the ground and mud, and there’d be rain, wind, snow. Some nights I actually froze because the fire went out. I learnt to live off the land and I would wash my clothes in the river, and made sure I didn’t smell as I didn’t want anyone to know. It wasn’t by choice and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
Over the next five years, Bob was determined to keep working and drifted from job to job whilst sleeping rough, doing whatever he could to give the impression to his work colleagues and family that everything was ok. “I’ve never been a person to ask for help. I’ve always managed to solve it in my own way, whether it was right or wrong. I thought I was doing alright. But eventually, it all became too much and I fell apart. I was drinking myself to death, I wasn’t shaving as often and I wasn’t washing properly. People realised my mood changed and I did think about committing suicide. I decided to reach out to my sister, who lives in Reading.”
Bob’s sister told him about Launchpad after she’d heard about the charity through a friend, and they both came to drop-in to find out what support was available. “I was nervous,” explains Bob. “I didn’t know what to expect. It took me a while before I opened up.” He was assigned Carl, a Launchpad floating support officer, who started working with the local council to help Bob find a safe home and get him set up on Universal Credit. Within weeks, Bob had accepted a flat. “When I first moved in, it felt weird because I hadn’t had a roof over my head for years – I didn’t sleep in my bed every night because I was so used to the hard ground. But I couldn’t believe it was mine. I bought some carpet and fitted it myself within a few hours, and the best part was the view from the window and having a proper shower,” explained Bob.
Carl worked with Bob to build his self-esteem and develop new skills, referring him to Launchpad’s art classes, counselling and gardening sessions, and he taught him how to use a computer. The removals team at Launchpad then took Bob on as a volunteer in late 2019, which continued to boost his confidence. “Working with Carl bought me out my shell. He helped me with all sorts of things – not just finding a home. And I loved working with the removals team. I unloaded all the lorry myself. I checked the oil and the water and all that for them. I even showed the teams bits they weren’t too sure about, which I know about. I was in my element,”
The impact of the pandemic
However, when the pandemic hit in March 2020, Bob was no longer able to volunteer and he really struggled with the isolation of lockdown, which impacted his mental health. “I was scared – the first 14 days in the flat were really hard and I was so lonely. I thought about sleeping rough again because I felt so trapped having lived outside for so long. I think I was more panicked during that time than when I was homeless,” explains Bob. “But Launchpad helped me through it. I got back in touch with them when I was anxious and as Launchpad 135 had just opened, I went in and with the help of Dan at the centre, I did various courses for my reading and writing on the computers, one about emotions and communication, and I just talked about my experiences with other people at the coffee mornings. It taught me to be more calm and collected, take life at a steady pace, and it’s given me confidence to express myself.”
If it wasn’t for Launchpad…
Earlier this year, Bob was offered a volunteer role in the garden at Launchpad 135, helping clients to build and paint planters and furniture, and maintain the outside space. He volunteers once a week at the centre and said, “Volunteering has given me satisfaction and belonging, and I’ve realised I’m not useless like people used to call me. I’m part of a team and I’m equal. I used to be suicidal but I don’t want to kill myself now because I’ve got too much to give. If it wasn’t for Launchpad, I wouldn’t be here.”