Speech Debelle: My homeless years

Speech Debelle

Many people equate homelessness with sleeping rough, but life is also a struggle for those who have to live on friends' sofas or in hostels, writes rapper Speech Debelle.

Most teenagers go through a rebellious phase. I suffered the consequences of mine for nearly four years.

I got into trouble at school and the more trouble I got into, the more rocky things got between me and my mum. My dad wasn't around much, so it was solely down to her to cope with my unruly behaviour.

By the time I was 19, things got pretty bad. We stopped being able to communicate and a relationship which previously was that of best friends broke down. One day I just said: "I'm out, I'm done."

I had nowhere stable to go, but I was angry and rebellious enough to not think about the consequences. My mum probably thought that a dose of reality was just what I needed at that point, so she said: "Fine, go then. See how you fare out there in the big wide world."

About the author

Speech Debelle

Yet, throughout my time away, she was still there for me. She would buy me groceries if I was stuck and helped me out financially now and again. It would have been much more difficult without her help, as it is for so many others.

Initially when I left home, I stayed on the sofa at a friend's house. Things were okay there for a while but I wasn't happy. When you're on someone's sofa, your friendship with that person becomes unbalanced. No matter how close you are, it's their personal space, the situation creates pressure and although I left home in part to feel more like an adult, I felt more like a child then ever.

My self esteem took a knock and I started feeling more and more uncomfortable - I was "sofa-surfing".

Looking back, I really didn't have a clue where all this was leading. I felt rootless, lost and depressed. I didn't have anywhere I wanted to go, nor anywhere I wanted to be.

When sofa-surfing became impossible, I called Shelter to find out if I could get a room somewhere.

Speech Debelle revisits her old hostel and explains how it inspired her music (clip from BBC Three's Britain's Hidden Homeless)

They placed me that day in a women-only hostel in Victoria. Some of my friends who had left home were staying in hostels, so it seemed like a means to an end.

At the time, there was a lot more social housing available, and for them living in a hostel was the best way to find permanent accommodation. But by the time I got into a hostel, social housing was becoming much harder to come by.

Woman sleeping on the sofa "Sofa-surfing" can be a short-term option for some homeless people

It was a relief to have my own space, but far from satisfying. Everything felt stagnant and stale, even the water from the taps. But it was in that hostel that I did find another form of escape that proved to be most fruitful.

I started writing rhymes again, something I hadn't done in many years. I remember one night I couldn't sleep. I was sitting in my room, hungry. I went downstairs to look for something to eat, but all I had was butter.

I went back up to my room to contemplate where I was, no money, no credit on my phone, and I started writing the song Searching:

"2am in my hostel bed, my eyes them red, my belly ain't fed / I got butter but I ain't got bread and I'm smoking on my last cigarette / I ain't got creds I can't make calls / Got no papers I got no jewels / Got debts up to my eyeballs / Christmas soon come and I got no funds but what's Christmas if you ain't at Mum's?"

What is hidden homelessness?

  • People living in squats, bed and breakfasts, or on the floors or sofas of friends and family can be defined as "hidden homeless"
  • 62% of 437 single homeless people surveyed for Crisis were "hidden homeless" on day of interview
  • 92% had experienced hidden homelessness
  • One in five homeless 18-25-year-olds surveyed left home to escape abuse
  • One-quarter of young homeless women have engaged in sex work to fund accommodation

I started recording with my crew First Love Musik any time I could. I'd tried using the time to study but being on Jobseeker's Allowance meant I could only do a one evening a week. One evening a week for three years feels like it's going nowhere. After a couple of months, I lost interest and was doing what I could to get by.

Eventually I had to leave the room in Victoria and started moving from hostel to hostel. There was one day I remember, in another women-only hostel, when I started to re-think my situation.

Space was becoming scarce. I was seeing a lot of women who had been beaten or abused, some of them with small children, and I remember thinking I don't need this space like they do.

I also began to realise that I was stuck. Before being in a hostel I had tons of energy and was ready to take on the world. I started a record label when I was 17 and finding myself trapped in a room not growing or working was too much to deal with. So eventually, after nearly four years, I went home.

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Too many vulnerable young people in this country are beginning their adult lives thinking about day-to-day survival rather than their own futures”

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I realise now how lucky I was to have a home to go back to. It put things into perspective for me and made me value the relationship with my mother in a new way. I had my best friend again. I'd met so many people for whom that wasn't the case.

Things are much harder now. There's less space in the hostels, waiting lists are far longer, rents and deposits are higher, and housing benefit cuts mean that if you're on DSS finding a place has become harder than ever.

For some young people, the risk of sleeping rough is the grim reality they face every day, and for some, committing crime or being admitted to hospital become real options.

Britain's Hidden Homeless shows only the tip of the iceberg. The people I met were contactable, they agreed to be filmed despite their problems, and they were actively seeking a way forward.

There are so many more who we couldn't get hold of, or were ashamed of where they found themselves, or who had tried to escape through drink and drugs.

'I ended up living in a car'

A woman becomes homeless, so she gets into her car and drives. Except she has nowhere to go - so she stays in the car, with all her possessions heaped in the back, sleeping in the front seats, parking in secluded streets.

For eight months, no-one notices her, because she makes sure she looks respectable, taking showers and even ironing her clothes in public places like hospitals. She has made herself invisible, out of touch from anyone she used to know - and keeping separate from other homeless people.

Homelessness is increasing quickly, help is hard to find and too many vulnerable young people in this country are beginning their adult lives thinking about day-to-day survival rather than their own futures.

Not having a stable home has a damaging effect on your health, self-esteem, your confidence, and your ability just to get on your own two feet and make something of your life.

I came across a lot of lost potential in these young people and that's very sad - both for them and society generally.

The song that I wrote in that hostel in Victoria became part of my debut album that won me the Mercury Music Prize and started my career.

I wonder if I hadn't had a hostel place and a home to go back to, how different my life would have been? How many other potential young artists, nurses, engineers, scientists or teachers are out there being held back by the housing crisis?

Here are a selection of your comments of living on friends' sofas or in a hostel.

I can completely understand this situation with Speech Debelle. I found myself "hidden homeless" at the vulnerable age of 16. I sofa surfed for six months at a friend's house to see me through my exams - and just as Debelle mentioned, it does break the relationship with your friend. I constantly felt that I was invading their personal space and we couldn't live together because neither of us could relax. It was a hard time to go through, as I felt that I never belonged anywhere. I am currently living with my fiancee's parents at the moment and finding my feet to go to university. However, the journey has been rather bumpy. All of this builds up on anyone who has to live with this: I am currently suffering from depression and am getting that under control with medication, with horrible side effects. There is little the government can do about this.

Charlie, New Romney, England

I've been homeless a few times, twice for longer than six months. I didn't have access to sofas or hostels for the most part, so had to squat, or live in a tent, old factories or just doorways. I usually became homeless because of changes in welfare policy, or because my welfare benefits were withdrawn or unavailable.

Dream, Huddersfield, UK

After leaving the army, having served for nearly 20 years, I found I could not cope with day to day life. Things like paying bills and the rent were alien to me - I got into money troubles and lost my flat, and for the next five years lived rough on the streets of Cardiff. My health and my state of mind suffered and the hostels were lawless and frightening. I was not a drug user and became a target from users in the hostel, so I took my chances on the streets. Then eight years ago by pure chance I met my wife who was a support worker, now we have super home and my life has turned around - so to people who are on the street, take heart life can turn around.

JD, Cardiff, Wales

I am currently living on friends sofas. I am 24 and single. I have been homeless since February 2011 and am still waiting for Solihull home options to house me. When I applied to Solihull I was told I would not be accepted as homeless, as I had made myself homeless by leaving my now ex partner who is a drug addict. I work full time on minimum wage and I cannot afford to go private. I am not sure how much longer I can wait. I have back problems from not sleeping properly and I'm being treated for depression.

Lucy, Birmingham

It's grim. I'm 56, in poor health, and I at last have a place of my own - until I get thrown out because I can't pay the rent. I used to be a high-earning professional but had a breakdown. I struggle with depression and restricted mobility, but the root of my practical problems is the Department for Work and Pensions. I have spent so much money on the phone with them, I'm so fed up I can't take much more. Sorry for venting. I just want to say that I know what it's like and I really feel for those who are even worse off than I am.

Edward, Dundee

I've been "hidden homeless" now for four months following a break up with a partner. I lost my job at the time too because of how stressed/depressed I was. I am staying on my best friend's sofa and it's truly depressing. She has three children and I know the stress of me being there is affecting her also. The lack of support and social housing available is crazy. Something really needs to be done, especially with all these empty houses around, most of which are owned by local associations. Maybe a system where local un-housed people can work with the associations to renovate the empties to the required standard in exchange for accelerated rehousing.

Sean , Manchester

I am living in a hostel now, trapped by the vicious circle I'd call revolving door syndrome. Having lost my accommodation in Bristol, I had to quit university in order to get benefits. I moved from place to place and finally settled at the chace centre in Coventry. I am now working full time, but minimum wages means 85% of your income go to hostel charges, and I might find myself unable to sustain such high rents.

Manou, Coventry

I left home at 15 and it was the best thing I ever did. I never thought of myself as homeless though, but in reality I obviously was. I kept it a secret for a while, until eventually my friend's parents found out and let me live with them. More support should be offered to those that have chosen to leave. Just because your parents are alive, and just because you didn't up in a foster home, doesn't necessarily mean that you have any help or anything to fall back upon.

Anon, London

I lived in two hostels in Slough for over two years in 1998 - I can honeslty say they were the best two years of my life. I used the hostel to gain experience and complete a Princes Trust Course both as a student and then as a team leader. I was then moved on by the local council into move on accommodation where I shared a block of flats, which were full of people that have come from hostels within the area. I read from the story that Debelle didn't seem to enjoy her time in hostels but I have nothing but positive memories of my time in the hostels in Slough.

Ruth , Slough

I was homeless in the late eighties, sleeping on people's floors when I was lucky. Other times I managed to go from one temporary accommodation to another. Without a permanent address it's impossible to get medical treatment or a job. Without somewhere to eat, wash and sleep, it's impossible to go to interviews. The worst thing is the despondency, the panic attacks, the feeling of being trapped in daily survival without being able to move forward in life. Friends don't want to get involved, health deterioriates and confidence plummets. I already had been to uiniversity, but a combination of life crises - with the addition of losing a job - meant that I just suddenly could not cope with finding accommodation and a job all at once. I had no family to resort to, and friends just did not want to get involved. It had repercussions that affected the rest of my life, repercussions that I am still dealing with now. It's certainly character-building, but people just don't understand unless they have been through it themselves.

Anne, Bristol

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