WHEN Tony Dooley was sleeping rough in places like Bolton Market’s doorway and Bolton Bus Station, it was not food, sleep, or even warmth that were the most important things on his mind.
“All I could think about was being safe” he said.
“If I was sleeping at the market I’d pull two of the wooden tables around me, it would make an effective coffin — a box — so I couldn’t be attacked.
“People see homeless people as an easy target when they’re out drinking.”
The 34-year-old ended up on the streets after falling into rent arrears while living with his grandfather.
And while his grandfather was able to live elsewhere, at the age of only 22, family problems left Tony with only one place to go — the streets.
His fears over his personal safety were borne out of an earlier stint of sleeping rough when he was a teenager and living in Manchester.
Mr Dooley said: “I’d had a massive argument with my foster parents, ended up sofa surfing and had £3 in my bank.
“I was about 18 or 19 and got a job at a funfair in Piccadilly Gardens.
“I’d only been doing it for a week or so when I was assaulted as I was closing the stall down, I called my mum and said ‘I’ve just been beaten up’, and got on the bus to go to her house.
“I was in the bath and I just blacked out, it turned out I had a hairline skull fracture.”
During his first time living rough Mr Dooley used to sleep in an electricity sub-station just below Piccadilly tram station.
He said: “The first time it hits you is when Manchester starts shutting down and you just think ‘where do I go?’.
“There used to be a street team who would give out food and drinks and blankets and you’d be thinking to yourself ‘what are other people doing now? They’ll be sitting at home watching Coronation Street’.”
After his family moved to Great Lever for a “fresh start”, Mr Dooley went to live with his grandfather but fell into difficulties.
He said: “I’d had a good education and was working at the time, but things just crept up and we ended up being evicted.
“That’s the thing when people talk about the homeless, it can happen to anyone.”
Now facing a second spell sleeping rough, Mr Dooley was at rock bottom.
He said: “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have feelings of suicide.”
But his life was turned around when he spotted a sign for Bolton Young Person’s Housing Scheme — a charity in Blackburn Road which supports homeless 16 to 25-year-olds.
It provided him with somewhere to stay, gave him emotional and financial help and advice, and helped him find his own place.
He said: “It’s one of Bolton’s most important unknown services.
“They taught me things like money management skills and helped me to come out of myself.”
Mr Dooley now has his own flat and had worked for three years as a receptionist, but is currently looking for a job.
He has also discovered a gift for acting and is a member of two drama groups, Dramatic Action and Box of Frogs.
He has performed around the country, drawing on his experiences of sleeping rough to help convey themes such as the effects of homelessness to audiences which have included housing staff.
He said: “It feels good — it’s done to staff members who don’t always see that side of the job.”
Mr Dooley also knows what it’s like to be on the streets over the festive season.
He said: “When I was homeless in Manchester it was around Christmas time. You see everyone around you looking happy.
“This time of year if I see someone on the streets I know what that feels like.”
Asked how he feels about life now, he said: “Nobody’s life is perfect, but in percentage terms I’d say mine is 90 per cent on track.
“I’m as strong as the people around me and I’ve got a good group of friends.”
Anyone who can offer Tony work can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org