Interview: Bradley Reback

A millionaire businessman says he has been changed forever by his experience of spending a week living as a homeless person

By Simon Round, November 11, 2010
Bradley Reback settles down for the night in his dilapidated camper van.  He survived on food hand-outs and had to wash at the local swimming pool

Bradley Reback settles down for the night in his dilapidated camper van. He survived on food hand-outs and had to wash at the local swimming pool

We may be living through an era of savage cuts and austerity, but not everyone is tightening their belts. Millionaire former care-homeowner Bradley Reback has been busy putting money back into the community.

Reback, who built, ran and eventually sold the Sidmar Jewish residential home in Edgware, north-west London, will be starring in the next episode of Channel 4's Secret Millionaire - in which those who have made a fortune are invited to experience life on the poverty line in a bid to persuade them to donate some of their money to charities working with people living at society's margins.

Reback did not need any encouragement to take part in the programme. In fact, he approached Channel 4 to ask if he could be considered. However, when the cameras turned up to start filming, he realised he was in for more than he anticipated.

"They took me outside my house and walked me around the corner. There stood a dilapidated camper van. They gave me the keys and said: 'Welcome home'," he recalls.

If this was not shocking enough, as Reback and the camera crew approached Brighton, which was where filming was to take place, the crew asked him where he would like to park. "I was astonished they didn't have anywhere planned. They explained that if you live in a camper van you are technically homeless."

In the seven days that he spent parked on Brighton seafront, Reback learned first hand what it is to be homeless in one of Britains's big cities. He had no phone, had to exist on jobseeker's allowance and had the problem of keeping clean and warm.

"On the first night I said to the camera crew: 'I've got no entertainment or anything'. They replied: 'Oh, that's a shame', and left me to it."

He also discovered that the camper van's shower did not work. "I had to go to the local swimming pool to have a shower. Because I promised not to swim, they let me in for £3 instead of £4."

But even that was not the lowest point - Reback found himself spending his Shabbat evening in a queue for a charity meal. "I wasn't expecting to have to do that. I was shocked the programme-makers did that to me, and I think the show was pushing the parameters."

Nonetheless, he describes meeting people who were genuinely reliant on food hand-outs, as "very moving and poignant".

Along with the lows there were corresponding highs - for example, witnessing the impressive work being done to help the homeless, unemployed and less privileged people in the city.

Not that that came as a complete surprise to the 46-year-old Reback - he worked for several years at Jewish Care and is still heavily involved in communal charity work.

He originally started out in business with a plan to build a small residential home for the elderly in the house he shared with his brother. The plan increased in scope as he bought up all the adjoining properties in his street and negotiated with the local council over planning permission. However, three quarters of the way through the building work, the contractors went into liquidation, leaving him staring into a financial abyss.

"I felt sick. I thought that if I didn't get the work finished I would be bankrupt. Within 48 hours I had set up a building company, got the OK from the bank, re-employed all the building workers and finished the building on time and under budget. It was probably the finest moment of my career."

Within a year he had extended the property to a 58-bed fully kosher home and ran it for 10 years until he decided to accept an offer for the business.

With his experience of working in the care field, Reback appreciated what he saw in Brighton. "I went off to a centre for the unemployed and homeless. They were fantastic, like a wonderful Jewish family. They were sucked in by my cover story, that I was a middle-class homeless person fallen on hard times. They even had a meeting about me in which they discussed what was going to happen to me after the film crew had gone home."

Reback was also highly impressed with an allotment project - run on a shoestring - which taught skills to children who were underachieving at school, and another which cares for people with dementia.

"Dementia is very close to my heart - my home was registered for dementia sufferers and of course Alzheimer's and dementia have touched nearly all of our lives," he says.

We will have to wait until Sunday to discover just how much Reback donated and which causes benefited - this remains a tightly guarded secret - but he is happy to talk about what the project meant to him.

"I got home, walked in, saw Stuart [his partner] and burst into tears. What I said to him was: 'They made me homeless'. Then I thought to myself: 'Well, I might be rich and I might be successful but actually I'm unemployed just like those people I was meeting'. It's been five years since I sold my business so it made me think hard about where I want to go with my life.

"It was a privilege to take part. It was life enriching and I'll be acting upon it until the day I die."

'Secret Millionaire' is on Channel 4 on Sunday at 9pm

Last updated: 4:14pm, November 11 2010