AN OXFORD man who has transformed his life is sharing his experience of homelessness and mental health problems to inspire others.

At the age of 16, Darren started suffering with mental health difficulties and soon became homeless.

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The 38-year-old, who has not shared his last name, said: “I ended up leaving home but didn’t have anywhere to go.

“I remember my first night sleeping rough even now, 22 years on. I slept in a car park, on the floor. I didn’t have anything to sleep on and was just wearing my jacket.”

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He added: “Sleeping at the side of bypasses and in hedgerows became normal for me, but I quickly realised that I preferred sleeping in more visible places. That way, if the worst did happen and someone tried to intimidate me, it felt like I could shout for help.”

Occasionally, Darren stayed in hostels but didn’t receive the support he needed for his mental health. He said: “A lot of the services available to people who are homeless only give you a certain amount of time to stay there.

"It felt like it was patching over the problem instead of actually solving it. You can only paper over the cracks so much before they start to show again.”

Things finally changed in October, 2018 when he moved into Emmaus Oxford, based in Cowley. The charity provides people who have experienced homelessness and social exclusion with a home for as long as they need it, daily support to address any problems, funded training and the opportunity to gain work experience in the charity’s social enterprise.

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He said: “Straight away, the team at Emmaus supported me with my issues and organised counselling sessions. Since joining Emmaus, I can feel my mental health improving each day, which is a great feeling to have.”

He added the pandemic and lockdown did hae a negative impact on his progress with his mental health, saying: “The lockdown was really tough. I found that my anxiety went up during that period and I missed working in our store.

“Myself and my fellow companions found other things to do to stay positive like decorating our community home and deep cleaning our shared kitchen.

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"Being at Emmaus Oxford allowed me to keep busy during that time, which really helped.”

To regain confidence and self-esteem, Emmaus Oxford provides work, training and learning opportunities to the people it supports.

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Darren said: “I help to run the charity store van service, collecting and delivering furniture for customers. I’ve also been given the chance to gain some qualifications and have an NVQ Level 2 in Storage and Warehousing. I’ve not done much of that sort of thing in the past, so it was a great achievement for me.”

When ready, he hopes to find work and his own place to live, saying: “I don’t want to go back to hostels or sleeping rough. I want to take my time and Emmaus lets you do that."

He added: “For anyone reading this in a similar position to what I once was, please know there is help out there for you. It might take a few tries to get somewhere, but do keep trying.”