Lyreco supporting our GROW programme – George’s story

“I felt marginalised by society”

A difficult childhood, followed by years of addiction, homelessness and mental health problems, 50-year-old George Smith has had his fair share of ups and downs. But after 25 years of living on the edge, George has turned his life around. And, through Riverside’s GROW trainee programme, he’s using his own experience to help others. This is George’s story.

“I knew I was different from a young age, but I couldn’t work out why. At school, I struggled to make friends and spent most of the time on my own. I was extremely bright and keen to learn but the lessons weren’t stimulating enough for me so I didn’t do too well.

At home, my dad was physically and emotionally abusive. He picked on me but left my brother and sister alone. Looking back, I think he must have seen something different in me that he didn’t like.

When I was 11, my parents split up, but my dad continued to bully me. I had a good relationship with my mum and I felt loved by her but my undiagnosed autism were affecting my behaviour and, at 15, I was taken into the care of the local authority.

It was the 1980s – a time when the rights and protection of children were overlooked. Some of the staff working at the home were violent and abusive and used ‘pin-down’ as a form of control and as a way to physically hurt us.

I left the home at 17 feeling let down and with an ingrained mistrust of authority and society in general.


I moved on from the home, unprepared, and expected to find my own way. I went from one cash in hand job to another and managed to rent a small flat. I was still very much a loner, and I was in a different world to everyone else.

I was also suffering from anxiety and depression, and turned to alcohol to help me cope. My GP over prescribed Valium for my anxiety, but when it became less effective, I started using amphetamine and cannabis, progressing crack cocaine and heroin.  Alongside the substance abuse, I found solace in music, being musically gifted.


Money was always an issue and by the time I reached my early 20s, I could barely make ends meet. This was when I turned to crime. In 1995 I was sentenced to three and a half years for robbery.

I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with prison life, especially without alcohol or drugs. But it suited me quite well. I had structure, and was able to break free from my addiction. I also got support for my mental health and achieved qualifications in English and Maths.

After 23 months, I was released. I got a new place to live and started a two-year college course in Music Technology. I excelled at it – in part because of my love of music but also because classes were more practical and hands-on rather than learning from books and I left with a BTEC National Diploma.

My success was short lived. I’d continued to drink and smoke cannabis but when I finished college, I had more time on my hands, and I started taking amphetamine, MDMA and cocaine again.

Living outdoors

As the world geared up for a new Millenium, I made a big decision. I knew people involved in NVDA, non-violent direct action at a protest site for Manchester Airport’s second runway where multiple sites of special scientific interest were under threat as were large areas of ancient woodland. In 1999, I decided to give up my home and join them.

I spent many months living in tree houses, benders, trucks and trailers and immersed myself in the new age traveller/free party/environmental campaign scene. I felt a connection with the people around me. We were all anti-establishment and pro-environment, what the press and media labelled as “eco warriors” although I always maintained I was just a concerned member of the public.

After Manchester airport second runway, I went to a naval base on the west coast of Scotland to protest against the nuclear missile carrying Trident class submarines. This was followed by a road protest in Essex that was set to desecrate sites of special scientific interest and more ancient woodland and then an anti-quarry campaign in Derbyshire that wanted to literally dig up a neolithic stone circle within a national park. Here, I met a girl from Bristol and we decided to go together to join a group squatting in abandoned mansions and empty, unused buildings. I chose an alternative lifestyle as I never felt part of society and lived on the fringe with other misfits.

A few years living outdoors and living in abandoned buildings had taken a toll on my health. I hadn’t been eating properly and I was still drinking every day and using drugs when I could. I felt more and more marginalised and couldn’t figure out why I felt different. There were times when I felt suicidal, but I kept going.

I felt I needed a more settled life so I applied for a council flat in Bristol. I managed to keep the tenancy for two years but I fell back into using class A drugs again because the problem in my life still wasn’t fixed.

I ended up back in Manchester – squatting abandoned building, sleeping rough and staying in hostels. I got caught with a sizable amount of MDMA [commonly known as ecstasy], which led to another year-long stint in prison.

While I was there, a prison officer encouraged me to try rehabilitation upon release. There was a place in Chester that offered support for both addiction and mental health issues. The idea was to tackle the problem causing the addiction first. I was there for nine months and it really helped me identify the problematic areas of my life.

I was back in Manchester, living on the streets. My life was miserable and I felt like I was slowly dying. Then one day, by chance, I bumped into an outreach support worker I’d met before. He helped me by finding temporary accommodation and I did a detox from alcohol. And, this time, it would be the last one I’d do. I used all that I’d learned at rehab in Chester and felt a strong determination to get well.

Freedom from addiction

In 2012 I moved into a housing association flat. Free from alcohol and drugs, I was able to focus on me, and what I wanted from my life. I began doing voluntary work and began restoring vintage musical instruments which I soon developed a passion for.  It’s since become a real niche for me. I’m probably one of a small number of people with the skills and abilities, and I now share my work on social media with other enthusiasts across the globe.

Through my involvement with outreach support, I found out about an organisation looking for volunteer ‘Street Buddies’. They wanted people who’d experienced homelessness to give support to others living on the street. I was invited to volunteer, so I decided to give it a go.

I worked for around six months but then had a nasty accident which needed reconstructive surgery. My recovery time coincided with our first lockdown and it wasn’t until late 2020 that I went back to the role.

I got a lot of satisfaction from helping people. They found it easier opening up to me because they knew I’d been in the same position. Many of them had mental health problems and undiagnosed sensory processing issues so they could relate to me directly.

It was around this time that I decided to see a psychologist. I still felt disenfranchised and I wanted to understand why. From our meetings, the psychologist suggested that I could be autistic. After a further assessment, I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. It was a lightbulb moment – and such a relief. For the first time in my life, I felt like I understood myself better and I’d found out the reason why I’d struggled so much in the past.


My work as a Street Buddy led me to a part-time fully paid job as a Support Worker for Riverside Street Engagement Hub. Through their GROW trainee programme, I give support to entrenched rough sleepers and those begging in the city centre. It’s the first time I’ve had a proper job in years.

My role involves finding out what support a person might need and then supporting them to access that support. I see myself as a middleman between customer and agencies such as the local drug and alcohol team, mental health services, homelessness charities, the local authority, police and probation services.

It gives me so much satisfaction to see people move on and live a better life. I feel proud of them, and what we’re able to do as a team.

When I think about how far I’ve come, I can’t quite believe it. My life has never been better. I’ve been drug and alcohol free for 12 years. I’ve got a job I love and many hobbies that gives me a focus. I’ve also started creating my own computer based music.

I’ve had an eventful life, and I wouldn’t change that, but I’m in a better place now since being diagnosed as autistic. I think you’ve got to live in the moment – try not to look back or worry about the future. That’s my focus now.