Man in torment

8th December 2000 at 00:00
(Photograph) - Like a hunted animal, he darted from one doorway to the next and then, with a glance over the shoulder, took flight across four lanes of rush-hour traffic before disappearing behind the stairwells of London's South Bank complex. "Charlie", as he was called on the street, was a wilderness of hair, filth and rags, soaked to the skin by the freezing winter rain and with toes poking out of his trainers. No medical expertise was needed to diagnose him as schizophrenic, because his symptoms were extreme. When he wasn't running in fear, it was because he had turned on his imaginary tormentors to beg and plead for an end to this persecution.

Although Charlie had lived around Waterloo for two or three years, not much was known about him - not even his real name. Other homeless people in the area left him alone, but made sure he was protected from predators who would cripple or kill for a quid or a can of Special Brew. For some he was almost a figure of reverence, like country folk centuries back who believed mad people had been touched by God. With the exception of the owner of a nearby tea stall who fed him, nobody could get near enough to talk to Charlie. But he was not alone in his torment.

According to figures compiled by Shelter, the charity for the homeless, 50 per cent of homeless people suffer from mental illnesses ranging from depression to severe personality disorders, compared with 5 per cent of the population generally.

Until the Fifties and Sixties, most mentally ill people were virtual prisoners in institutions, deprived of their rights as citizens. Then the invention of drugs that suppressed some symptoms of schiophrenia enabled more sufferers to live at home or in halfway houses, with support from social workers and psychiatrists.

But in the Eighties another 40,000 patients were released into the community as government and health authorities tried to cut spending, by freeing up long-term hospital beds, and realise the soaring values of the land upon which Victorian asylums had been built. The proceeds of these sales were to fund community care alternatives, but by the time of disposal the fall in property values meant that targets were never met.

However, it was not concern for patient welfare which fuelled calls for a change of policy, but a series of highly publicised killings by patients who had been released from hospital. Many victims were family members, social workers or fellow prisoners in remand cells, but the most well known was the murder of Jonathan Zito in 1992 at London's Finsbury Park Underground station.

Zito was randomly attacked by Christopher Clunis, a paranoid schizophrenic who had been released from hospital without support and supervision. Campaigners say there are as many as 50 such killings each year.

Most schizophrenics, however, are far more likely to harm themselves than anybody else. It's debatable whether Charlie suffered most from his illness or from the conflicting priorities of the policy-makers. As Michael, another of Waterloo's homeless, said: "He probably just forgot to take his drugs. And now he lives here."

Web links National Schizophrenia Fellowship Mind Shelter: the National Campaign for Homeless People Photograph by Steve Connors.

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