Karl Alexander slept rough on the streets of Swindon for several months. He tells SARAH SINGLETON how he came to be homeless, about his gratitude to the people who helped him, and his longing to take his family on holiday

Clean of drugs, busy with job-hunting and giving back by helping the homeless, Karl Alexander’s life is taking a turn for the better.

He hit the headlines recently when local group Swindon Helping Hands helped him off the streets and into accommodation – and now Karl, 38, is determined that generosity will spur him on to building a future he can be proud of.

When we meet, Karl is feeling a bit under the weather, recovering from a cold, but a month clean he says he does not miss the drugs at all.

Karl is the first to admit he has been no angel – as well a drug addiction, he has had a chequered history with the law. Now a father and grandfather, he wants to prove to everyone he can do better.

He was born in Swindon, grew up on Park North and South, and went to school at Churchfields. He started to go off the rails in his teens.

“I got into trouble aged 13 or 14. Drink and drugs. I was from a single parent family, but my mum was great. I made my own choices,” he says.

Karl has a younger sister, Vikki. Their mother, Heather Hill, moved to New Zealand 10 years ago. When still a teenager, Karl became a father – but the challenge of being such a young parent was magnified when the mother of his daughter died suddenly, when the baby was just 11 months old.

“She died of septicaemia,” Karl recalls. “She was diagnosed with a flu bug, but then had her spleen removed and then got septicaemia.

“The story was reported in the paper, and it said how when she died, her older daughter, who was five years old, went out knocking on doors for help. I have always got that image in my head.”

With the help of his mum, Karl brought up his daughter Chelsea.

“It was hard,” he recalls. “I always felt there was a stigma around being a dad on his own taking care of a child. I felt like I was getting knocked back all the time. My daughter’s 20 now – and she’s got two kids. We are close.

“I also have another son, Harvey, who is seven.”

When he was 34, Karl had a shop-fitting job and he began a new relationship. But he was still taking drugs.

“I have had a drug addiction through my life – heroin, crack, cannabis,” he explains. “I lost my job because I got unreliable. I made claims for universal credit, but the claims kept failing. I had hoped I could move in with my girlfriend, but I lost my flat in September and my relationship broke up.

“My daughter would have put me up, but I had a drug problem and I couldn’t be around my grandkids like that.”

Out of options, Karl found himself homeless and sleeping on the streets.

“I spent the first night behind Tesco’s in town,” he says. “I had a sleeping bag and a blanket. It was horrible, to be honest with you. Though the delivery drivers kept waking me up to give me money and food, which was kind.

“When I was first sleeping on the streets, I didn’t get any proper sleep. But I made a friend with someone who was also homeless and that helped a lot. We slept in a tent near the back of Poundworld.

“One of the worst nights was when it snowed and the tent collapsed under the weight of the snow. Every day you wake up and you’re thinking how to survive another day.

“I started begging in Old Town. A lot of people were shocked because they knew me. People were generous though. And there are people who help, like the Filling Station, the Alternative Angels, Helping Hands and the Breakfast Club.

“I would wake up, go to the Breakfast Club from 8.30am to 10am, then start begging for money – and I’d buy drugs to make myself feel better. I’d walk around town a lot of the day, go to Milton Road for a shower, and after that – just killing the day. It was boring.”

Karl recalls how humiliating it was to beg, at the start, especially in a town where he had grown up and was well known.

“On New Year’s Day I was begging, and a woman took me to MacDonald’s and bought me something to eat. She told me she had walked past, but then she turned round and came back. It meant a lot to me. I don’t think people understand how much it means, a little bit of your time.”

Karl admits he never used to be particularly aware of the homeless before experiencing the situation for himself but now he is out with Helping Hands, giving food and support to the homeless in Swindon.

His own situation began to turn around when Rachel Tucker, of Helping Hands, offered to help him find accommodation. Karl said his positive attitude had swung their decision and having been given the help and taken aback by the generosity of those who had donated, Karl decided it was time to change himself.

“I made the decision to get clean and get help,” he says. Karl got counselling and support, and he stopped using drugs a month ago.

“I have been through nothing as bad as being homeless – my head was just on survival mode. Now it’s great to be able to shut the door and have my own room, to be able to have a shower when I want, and to walk barefoot on a carpet.

“I am looking for work, in building or roofing. Now’s the time for me to do it.

“My daughter’s so pleased she has me back. When I was using drugs, I distanced myself from my family and friends, but now she’s got her dad back.

“My daughter’s amazing, and I’m lucky to have her. I am proud of her and she’s a great mum.”

And where would he like to be in five years’ time?

“I’d like to be a full-time roofer. To be driving. I would love to take my kids and grandkids on holiday. I just want to be happy and to have normality, and do things normal people do with their family,” he said.

“Having a second chance is important,” he said. “I feel indebted to Helping Hands, and I help them all the time. I have been no angel in my life but now I am a better person.”

Karl said he did not have an easy relationship with his father, who had not been impressed with the way his son was living. But Karl is keen to prove himself.

“What I’d really like is to be able to take him out for a drink,” he said.