Man with Successful Modeling Career Reveals He Was Secretly Homeless
08/05/2015 AT 08:05 AM EDT
His story – which he tells in the new documentary Homme Less – begins in the 80s. "I had a wonderful four-year experience living in Europe from '84 to '88, where I worked in Milan in shows for Gianni Versace, Franco Moschino and Missoni," Reay, now 56, tells PEOPLE. "The main benefit of this experience was just being able to absorb so much of the European lifestyle and culture."
After his European stint, Reay moved back to the States and took a desk job. "I found it unfulfilling in terms of artistic expression," he says. "Out of this boredom, I moved back to New York to be near my family and to study acting."
He was able to earn a living as a TV and movie extra for five years before heading back to Europe to pursue modeling and photography. "I had a dream of going to the South of France and becoming a photographer, which absolutely produced no income and drained my bank account almost to the bone," says Reay of falling on hard times. "I came back to New York with enough money in my pocket to stay at a hostel in Williamsburg for about ten days."
But after just two days, Reay was covered in bedbug bites. Not wanting to infest any of his friends' apartments – and too poor to afford a hotel room – Reay decided his only option was to camp out on his friend's roof for a few days.
A few days became a few years. Reay secretly lived on his friend's roof from 2008 to 2014. Not one of his friends or family members knew he was homeless.
"It wasn't something I was proud of," he says of his secret. "I just mentioned that I was staying with a certain friend, renting a room, and I kept up my appearances. I had that well-dressed man disguise on, so I could get away with a lot more and people wouldn't be suspicious."
During the time he was homeless, Reay continued to work as a model, actor and photographer. What kept him going was the hope of one day sharing his incredible story with others.
"While I was experiencing this, I was writing a film script in my head," he says.
As luck would have it, he finally got the chance to tell his story. A random encounter with an old friend named Thomas Wirthensohn, who was making short films at the time, led to the documentary Homme Less.
"I didn't just trust Tom as a filmmaker, but as a friend, so we joined forces and we started shooting," he says of the making of the film. "I think this is a story that's kind of universal, unfortunately, given that it's such a perilous economic situation."
When he reflects back on his life – though he has fulfilled many of his creative impulses – Reay admits that he HAS some regrets.
"I'm not in the position that I wanted to be in," says Reay, who now lives in a temporary apartment in New York's Upper East Side. "A few years ago in my early 50s, I said, 'Accept that you're lost.' And I became a bit more content. It wasn't a recipe for success, but it was a recipe for survival. I took the road less traveled and I wound up lost. I was totally off the trail. But in the end, I always knew that it would be a great story."
Homme Less opens in N.Y.C. on August 7, and across the nation in September.