Vagrancy and psychosis

Still from Durham Light Powerpoint

Still from Durham Light powerpoint

When I first lived rough, it was in a car, and I got into trouble with the law when I stole petrol, filled up at a garage and drove off without paying. There were other similar offences connected to survival. I accumulated a total of 13 offences between 1975 and 1989, all were dealt with by some type of discharge, with one custodial sentence of one month. I got to know survival in prison during many weeks on remand before those discharges were handed down. There was never a question of my fitness to plead. Before I was admitted to an asylum, I had no criminal record. After my last psychiatric admission after the passing of the Community Care Act in 1990, I have not reoffended. My offending was never drug or alcohol related, it was not acquisitive, it was not gang related, it was not of a sexual nature, it was soley associated with vagrancy during my revolving door asylum time. I condemn the asylums. You got turned into an old lag.

At last in the 1980's I learned how to live as a vagrant without having to break the law, and lasted from 1986 to 1991 in that condition. I got several layers of clothing and took refuge in bus shelters, and in the shelters in Oakwood hospital grounds, or at train stations between Hastings and Ashford on the Romney Marsh line. As each winter turned into spring, I knew I had survived and the summers were good, and if it did not rain I could sleep soundly in any woods or other place where I happened to end the day. I could rise with the birds at 4 in the morning and get going, with the morning sun coming up and no-one around. I could see the horses and cattle and sheep in the fields as I passed, they would be munching on the grass and all was well. There was a great sense of protection and security in a bus shelter in driving rain. You knew that no-one else would be venturing out, and you could be safe and dry under your protective clothing as the rain was beating down, and you could go off to sleep to the rhythm of the storm.

Why did I not freeze to death during the winters sleeping out? I put that down to having a hypnotist who would put me in a trance as I settled down in a bus shelter, and then remove me to a warm place or keep me warm somehow in the shelter, and then wake me in the morning so it seemed like I had survived freezing temperatures. That was my explanation.

The lead up to this desparate time was when I still had resources. I got a Giro (a payment instrument from the dole people) and that included an amount to pay the mortgage, as was provided in those days. I had been sacked from my job in the City when we were taken over. My mother thinks that if I had kept on with the job I would be in a top position by now. She thinks the same about my time at Reading University, and that I would have had a good career had I not gotten ill and failed my finals. So in 1985 I had been sacked and was living off the dole. My house at 6 Orissa Road Plumstead mainly meant one thing: I had escaped from the supervison of the Richmond Fellowship hostel in Putney and hence left off injections. This was to be another episode of the revolving door, not a route to independence and a fulfilling life. I became psychotic and signalled with a torch to Ronald Regan via the surveillance satellite above my house. I read that the average length of mortgage arrears was two years. This meant to me that I would not have to pay the bank its mortgage money from the Giro I got from the dole for two years. I began to travel around Europe by train, returning every fortnight to sign on. I found I could stay awake for four days and nights, and would just take some long continental train journey to wherever. I was euphoric at times like when I first got to Switzerland. The train stopped at Customs in the middle of the night and I stepped out into a Swiss street at the border station. Tremendous. But to my chagrin, Citibank repossessed my house in record time of about four months and the order was signed in the High Court by Master Munroe on April Fool's Day, 1st April 1986. 'No, Mr Voyce, I am signing the order'. I had no legal representation. I thought of it as an April Fool Joke. I didn't need a terrace house in a poor part of London, I could get out and live, find out what the world was about, use my knowledge of politics and languages.

Eventually circumstances led to the ending of the inflated dole claim. During my time in work I had accumulated several credit cards, and I drew cash from them all one day at Barclay's in Welling, and that saw me through some more European train travel. I was elated at this, but did not book into hotels for showers or have a means of brushing my teeth, I just had the clothes I stood up in and cash to see me through Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and places in between. I seriously neglected myself, and must have had some odour! But the bank took the house with a legal notice pinned to the front door, and I entered destitution and started to get NFA (No Fixed Abode) rate dole in Maidstone, and lived in bus shelters. This whole period was from 1986 to 1991.

I spent some time in a Spike at Sittingbourne, or to give it its full title, DHSS Resettlement and Rehabilitation Centre, a former Army drill hall. (DHSS was the Department of Health and Social Security, as featured in Wham! Rap.) This place, a former Army place, added to my impression that I was living as some kind of soldier, waiting for the arrival of the Soviet Army, which I thought had won the Cold War. My experience of Sittingbourne Spike was that in no way did you get resettled or rehabilitated. That was unimportant. But it was three good meals a day and two or three cups of tea. The money was even less than regular DHSS pocket money, and took many weeks to come through. At that place I collected and rolled up dog ends for the first time in my life. I had two spells at Sittingbourne Spike, and got kicked out once for following a member of staff home, and once I left when they got me an interview with a psychiatrist who prescribed me meds. Me, mentally ill? 'Course not, there's nothing wrong with me. I'm just poor and will use my weapon, which is to click a Coke bottle at passing cars...' On the last occasion at that spike, I managed to get a local solicitor to recover the change from the house I had, but which had been repossessed by Citibank. It amounted to about £13,000. I thought - thirteen, eh? An unlucky number - they (the bank and the High Court which had issued the possession order) are saying to me: Unlucky, my son. So what that thirteen grand meant was that I got away from the spike and just drew out £50 a day from the Post Office account where I had paid in the cheque. It meant I no longer drew the dole, and got trains or buses or taxis to where I thought I should be. Typically I would take a reel of film a day and have it one-hour developed, sometimes at Kodak's in Maidstone. Then I would leave the photos of cars whizzing past me on the roads, or aircraft flying overhead, or whatever, I would leave those photos outside the Crown Court or even by dustbins for the refuse collector to find, as I knew these were the people who could get the photos to the right hands. I also knew that Kodak's would pass on the film negatives to anyone who would buy them, and by now I knew this would be Soviet intelligence. Then it would be an Indian or Chinese takeaway and find some shelter for the night. Also, no more rolling up dog-ends. It was 20 Red Band a day. Red Band, yes this is another sign the Soviets will be here sometime soon. I never got in anywhere with the £13,000, I just spent it at £50 a day for about a year. I still lived in bus shelters. When it had run out, it could have bought a brand new car for example, I signed back on the dole. The solicitor's receptionist told me when the payment had been arranged: Mr Voyce, you can buy a house in Liverpool for thirteen thousand. What did I want to go to Liverpool for?

I had discovered during my last spell of homelessness and vagrancy, which was five years from repossession on April 1st 1986 (is this an April Fool that they're repossessing my house?) to my last compulsory admission to Oakwood asylum in May 1991 - during that time I had discovered that you could get a daily and then, after a while, a fortnightly Giro from the DHSS office. This you could claim without having an address. NFA - No Fixed Abode. The NFA rate I remember was £4.77 a day. You got the Giro at 3.30 at the office, and then cashed it at the sub Post Office a few streets away from the DHSS. I lived on food from supermarkets. I would typically buy a lump of cheese, a pork pie, some biscuits, maybe a pint of milk, and maybe a bottle of Coke in the summer. Also 20 fags. I lived. Weekends were harsh as you did not get Saturday's and Sunday's money in advance. You got the £4.77 on the Friday and that had to last till 3.30 on the next Monday... I got really hungry at times, but did not have to beg and did not have to steal. As I was NFA and had no address, I did not have to pay Poll Tax!

I learned to keep warm by wearing layers that would then go over me in the outlying bus shelter where I might end up. This applied to the poor NFA rate dole days and to the self-financed days when I got the £13,000 change from the sale of my repossessed house, but continued to live in bus shelters or rough if it was not raining. Thus, I would have a shirt and pullover, then a body warmer, then a padded bomber jacket that I got from C&A in Amsterdam on a foray abroad, then a terrific oversize wax jacket I got from Millett's. The hood on that jacket never blew back so it was really useful in windy rain, and it was a real lifesaver because it was 100% waterproof and I could count on going anywhere in any conditions inside its protection. At night I put the lined wax jacket over my lower half, then got inside the body warmer with the padded bomber jacket over my top half and over my head. I could survive most cold in this way. But I was permanently chilled. Once when I got flu and could not stop shivering, I knew I had to get inside. So I did an act of vandalism and phoned up the police to give myself up. I got a month in Canterbury Jail and got over the flu before it turned into pneumonia.

I was lucky that I went out of town to sleep. I knew someone who at the same time as me slept in town in shop doorways, and who got beaten up with baseball bats. For my MA I read of homeless people who actually die from violence, sleeping in towns. Nowadays I would not think it safe even to sleep in far out bus shelters, you could really be at risk. At this time they were closing mental wards, so you didn't even have the option of exchanging Depixol injections in the backside for a warm place to sleep. As the 80's went on, so maybe half then two thirds of an asylum's wards would be closed, then there would be only one or two open, then maybe only the wards in a newly built secure ward on site. So the woman who speaks for my now-deceased friend Ivan who was beaten up in Hastings sleeping in a doorway, is right in a way when she blames Margaret Thatcher for bringing that about. All I can say is I am now very grateful to Mrs T for implementing community care so us loonies can have a dignified life with freedom and quality. I quote her as an unlikely source of social justice, but it was Mrs T who done the deed. Stories about my dead pal Ivan's jeopardy, and the cries of Marjorie Wallace that it is 'Schizophrenia, A National Emergency' do have a point relating to the closure of mental wards. I was lucky to get through that time maybe. But since community care was brought in there is no more SANE, no more national emegency. If you look for bad practice anywhere you will find it, I am glad the asylums are gone and say thanks to Lady Thatcher for that act of social justice, for whatever reason she did it.