In recent years, the global number of people that are having problems securing a livelihood and a place to spend the night has increased dramatically. Homeless and unemployed people are facing great difficulty integrating into society in a way that will be fulfilling for them or that will make their life on the street easier to cope with.
A possible answer to these challenges is a novel concept that has appeared in some European cities. It has created meaningful employment for homeless people. It allows them to share their stories with the world if they wish and to provide unique insights on a side of urban life that is greatly overlooked, thought-provoking, sobering, and deeply human. We’re talking about city tours run by supporting organizations and given by the homeless people themselves.
These tours generally don’t go over the usual sights; instead, they offer perspectives into the lives and rough experiences of the people who live on the streets. They don’t gloss over the harsh realities, nor are they overly melodramatic. They are given by real people who have been seeking an audience that sees the value in what they have to share. By people who wish to connect.
At Spotted by Locals, we are obviously advocates of local travel – we believe that discovering a city should not be restricted to following clichéd set tours to well-polished landmarks. There are plenty of different experiences to be had. That includes the perspective of a homeless person, which can reveal the darker side of a city in a way that’s not only extremely local but also unashamedly authentic. Furthermore, opting to follow these tours is supportive of people who are in need and are looking for a way to gain self-confidence, re-enter society and succeed in creating value for others – and for themselves.
In hopes of raising awareness, as well as a token of our support and approval of these initiatives, we present to you a number of social enterprises that have emerged in European cities that are part of the Spotted by Locals network.
Amsterdam – Amsterdam Underground
“Amsterdam Underground is an initiative of De Regenboog Groep and is the only non-profit provider of guided tours offered by formerly homeless people in Amsterdam. All our guides are offered a useful day project and a small compensation. With the income from this particular project, we also make sure other projects are made possible.”
“Ask questions, and find out more about the other side of the Red Light District through the stories of the guides. Find out how heroin came to the Netherlands and why the Zeedijk was a no-go area. How and where do you find something to eat while living on the streets? Where do you sleep? Find out how to survive on the streets of Amsterdam in world full of danger and distrust.”
A participant said this about her experience with Amsterdam Underground and her guide:
“Sonja’s tour focused on her life – on how she developed her addiction to drugs, how she turned to crime and prostitution to fund her addiction and how, 25 years later, she found the strength and determination to get clean. No question was out of bounds and Sonja answered everything with a refreshing openness. She was so incredibly honest about her life, about the choices she had made and the damaging impact that these choices eventually had. Sonja explained to us that she was not proud of what she had done in her former life, but she said ‘it’s my story‘. And she told us her story beautifully.”
You can see a 4-minute video about Amsterdam’s homeless tours here (Dutch without English subtitles)
Athens – Shedia Invisible Tours
Shedia is a street newspaper in Athens sold by homeless and unemployed people. One of their numerous social actions is Invisible Tours – tours run by homeless and formerly homeless Athenians who are also Shedia street newspaper vendors.
Invisible Tours is different from some of the tours in other cities. Apart from only having the tour guides take groups through their personal places of interest in the backstreets of Athens, they also introduce visitors to many important social and solidarity institutions of the Greek capital. Including soup kitchens, day centers, drug rehabilitation centers, homeless shelters etc. The guides provide information on the types of services offered by each institution as well as how they themselves have experienced or are still experiencing homelessness.
Maria, one of the guides, has this to say about her experience as a guide: “Having contact with the people is the greatest gift. I have become much more social. I was always a shy person. Today, I have gained a little more courage. It helps me to hear such good reviews. It encourages me to go ahead and try harder. I’m optimistic. The ‘Invisible Tours’ helped me gain self-confidence to stand in front of people, to look at them in the eyes and speak about my life. At first, I thought I could not make it. But now I see that every day I smile more and become better. Not only in the tours but also as a person”
Barcelona – Hidden City Tours
Hidden City Tours in Barcelona, founded in 2013, offers jobs to formerly homeless people and an opportunity for them to reclaim control of their lives.
Their main difference from other homeless tour providers around Europe is that their tours are not thematically limited to homelessness. Apart from their Classic and Streetlife tours, which are more focused on the experience of being homeless in Barcelona, they also have a Ravel, a Food Market & Tapas, and a Montjuic tour.
While these selections place them closer to more traditional walking tour enterprises, their guides are still all formerly homeless. They’ve been recruited from social services, soup kitchens, and homeless charities, and then coached and trained by Hidden City Tours themselves.
Berlin – Querstadtein
“We are offering guided tours through Berlin which are led by (previously) homeless tour guides. Since our start in June 2013, we have facilitated more than 550 tours and have reached more than 10,000 people!”
“For homeless people, everyday things often take on a whole new meaning. Life on the streets doesn’t always work like ‘normal’ in society. With homelessness, perspectives on the city change: streets, parks, and squares become living spaces… At the end of the tours, hopefully, you will have a new outlook on the city, and the people who sleep on its streets.”
At the moment of writing, Querstadtein and their ‘Homeless show their Berlin’ project runs a Mitte tour. This social enterprise also runs a Refugees show their Berlin tour. You can choose between either Berlin Mitte or Neukölln.
London – Unseen Tours
“Unseen Tours is an award-winning, not-for-profit social enterprise that offers alternative walking tours through London’s most vibrant and interesting neighborhoods, led by homeless and formerly homeless guides.”
This London social enterprise was set up back in 2010, making it one of the first, if not the first, homeless tour organizer globally. Once again, the British capital has been at the forefront of discovering innovative ways to include and employ homeless people, having also been the birthplace of The Big Issue street newspaper in 1991.
60% of the ticket price goes straight to the guide, with the rest covering the organization’s running costs. At the time of writing, Unseen Tours offers tours in five London neighborhoods: London Bridge, Covent Garden, Camden, Shoreditch and Brick Lane.
According to Henri, the Shoreditch tour guide:
“[The tours] gave me a way to earn a regular income and to help change perceptions of people who are homeless… we don’t all fit the homeless stereotype. Working as a guide for Unseen Tours has changed my life. I still lead tours around the area of London that I know and love best, but now I am renting and I’m hopeful about what the future holds.” – The Londonist
Here’s a link to a 20-minute documentary by Upneet Naur-Kagpal about Unseen and their work.
Prague – Pragulic
“Pragulic is a social enterprise that challenges the stereotypes associated with homelessness by enabling people to experience the world from a homeless perspective.”
Pragulic was founded in 2012 by a group of university students. Since then, tens of thousands of people have had the opportunity to see Prague through the eyes of the formerly homeless guides, following the route the guides have created themselves and getting closely acquainted with the difficulties of life on the streets.
In fact, this enterprise in particular also offers experience activities inspired by the guides themselves, e.g. making participants live in the streets for 24 hours together with their guide. Pragulic’s philosophy is “you can only understand homelessness after you have tried it yourself”, in this way creating agents for change. Indeed, many people who have gone through these experiences report that they helped them switch their perspective and offered them invaluable insight into the real conditions of life without a home.
Their pricing policy is that “locals and visitors pay 250 Czech Republic koruna each and guides receive a flat fee of 353czk per tour plus tips; the rest is used to cover running costs as well as provide a range of support services including free haircuts, help finding employment, and access to a psychologist.”
Ljubljana – Nevid(e)na Lublana
”Walking in the shoes of the kings of the streets’’
“Invisible Ljubljana: Who can better show you the streets than someone who has lived on those very streets? The routes you will visit are chosen by the guides themselves. Don’t expect to see traditional touristic spots, stories, and legends. We want to show you another side of Ljubljana and help you discover the invisible.”
The project in the Slovenian capital was first started by street magazine vendor Kralji Ulice (“Kings of the streets”). The wordplay behind Nevid(e)na Lublana can be roughly translated as “Invisi(ta)ble Ljubljana”.
“This is, in a way, is a tour through their past lives – where they lived, slept or hung around when they were homeless; where they got help (free meals, fresh clothing/shoes) or resolved health issues. Some of the guides also introduce some individuals who are still living on the street and are ready to share their life stories.”
Check out a 2-minute video on Nevid(e)na Lublana here. With English subtitles.
Edinburgh – Invisible Edinburgh
Invisible Edinburgh was founded in 2016 by French Zakia Malouaoui, who was first inspired by the Invisible Tours in Athens. They believe that homelessness is not always what people think. People don’t need to sleep rough to be considered homeless – they can be staying with friends, in B&Bs or in hostels. Homelessness can and does happen to everyone for all sorts of reasons such as loss of a job, health issues, family breakdown etc.
The tours start in the Grassmarket, Castle Terrace, and Middle Meadow Walk. Each has a different theme and is tailored to the guide’s individual experience. At the time of writing, there are three guides working in the social enterprise. Their themes are powerful women of Edinburgh, crimes and punishment, and arts.
You can watch a 3-minute video about Invisible Edinburgh and their action here.
Vienna – Shades Tours
Shades Tours in Vienna, founded in 2015, offers two-hour tours led by a homeless person who educates participants on what challenges the homeless face, about the everyday life of a homeless and what solutions the city offers.
Our Vienna Spotter Julia Heiligenbrunner had the opportunity to be at one of their tours – she gave us the original inspiration for this article with what she had to say about her experience:
“City tours guided by the homeless of an area is a relatively new concept, yet the ones in Vienna already do it like the pros. I joined a tour guided by Barbara recently and loved it. Her insights and the facts she provided us with while walking around the hidden corners of the center, taught me lots – even though I already considered myself rather well-informed before. I highly recommend everyone to do a tour with them! But hurry up, they sell out quick!”
If you are a French and/or German speaker, you may also check out the Paris (L’ Alternative Urbaine) and Zurich (Surprise) homeless tours respectively.