Hiring Homeless to Give City Tours

It is February and the streets are quite compared to the summer.  However; there are a number of tourists bustling around Barcelona taking in the sunshine, wine, food and culture.  The city altered itself into one of the most dynamic and stylish capitals in the world. Year-round the city is alive, it is always on the cutting edge of architecture, food, fashion, style, music and good times. Tourists from around the world come to see art by Picasso and Miró.  Street performers and the sound of music fill the air. Architecture by Gaudí, will grab your eye regardless of interest buildings or city planning.  It is easy to come to Barcelona and fall in love with the city.  Nevertheless; if you look closely, there are issues.  Hidden behind the beauty of the city is an unsettling increase in the number of people living without housing.  Homelessness in Barcelona is on the rise and the economic problems in Spain may make it worse before it can become better.

The financial crisis hit many low income families in Spain especially hard.  According to the latest Trading Economics report, there are around 5.5 million Spanish workers unemployed compared to 1.7 million in 2007, shortly before the economic crash. The unemployment rate now stands at just under 24 percent. Spanish youth are taking the brunt of the problems, with over 50 percent of those under age 25 without work.[1]  Many jobs in the public sector were eliminated with almost 200,000 being cut in 2012 alone.  Those lucky enough to keep a job often have seen cuts to their income and or benefits.  Older people receiving a pension have seen cuts from 10%-20%.

Enter Lisa Grace and Hidden City Tours.  Lisa worked as a market research consultant by profession and has been a resident in Barcelona since 2004.  After losing her job in 2012, she decided to make a change.  In the spring of 2013, Lisa saw an agency called Unseen Tours, a social Enterprise in London offering homeless walking tours.  This gave her an idea.  She believed Barcelona would be perfect for a homeless walking tour project.  The city is one of the most visited spots in Europe and she believes there is also a increased consumer consciousness for responsible tourism.  Lisa decided to use Barcelona’s booming tourism economy to help put to work homeless individuals looking to improve their lives.

On this sunny but cool day, I took a tour of Barcelona with Ramón.  He met me in the city center where we took one of the most interesting city tours I have ever received.  We touched on everything from the history of Spain to issues faced by homeless in Barcelona and where they turn to for help and support.  As we snaked our way through the streets of the city we visited soup kitchens, places where homeless often go to sleep and spoke about the support systems in the city and where the system is lacking.  The tour is done in a very respectful manner to ensure nobody feels as if they are being looked upon.  Throughout the tour Ramón told me personal stories about street life and how the financial crisis affected people from every category of live.  Professionals lost jobs, spent their savings and could end up on the street.

Ramón told me his personal story.  He was born in Salamanca.  Traveling was always a passion for him and he lived in France and the USA.  While in the USA he finshed the Culinary Art School in New York City and worked in many high class resturants.  Throughout the tour his love of cooking and food was evident.  We stopped on several occasions to try olive oil, fresh cheeses or to learn about the various types of meat.   Ramón then told me about how he became homeless.  In 2008, he returned to Spain and came to Barcelona in search of work but struggled to find a permanent job.  He worked several part time jobs but a combination of illness and lack of employment left  Ramón homeless.  Things changed when his social worker heard about Hidden City Tours.  “When my social worker read about Hidden City Tours in the local newspaper she immediately suggested that I get in touch, so I called Lisa and the next day we met for an interview!”  It is clear that Ramón does not want anyone to feel sorry for him.  He works hard and focuses his energy on his son who still lives in New York and his mother who is 86 years old.  He believes the job allows him the opportunity to live a dignified live and meet interesting people from all around the world.  He is now living in a shared flat and continues to work on improving his situation.

Hidden City Tours hires only homeless.  Each guide goes through a serious of training’s that last 80-90 hours before giving any tours.  If a guide’s English needs help, the company sends them to English courses weekly to improve speaking.  The company currently offers four tours including one by Ramón that focuses on food.   He leads groups  through one of Europe´s largest markets,  while giving tips on picking local and seasonal products.  In particular Ramon helps visitors find the best quality while looking at  Spanish ham, cheese, meat and game, fresh fish and seafood.  In total there are five guides working for the company right now.  The tours are offered in Spanish, German, French and English.

As with any city trying to cut back on homelessness, jobs and housing units are key.  Every job counts and innovative ideas that take advantage of a city’s economic advantages to help homeless is smart.  While many industries are being cut in cities across the world, some cities are lucky enough to be hot beds for tourism.  This idea has been successfully implemented in a few European cities.  Is this an idea that could be used in Seattle or other US cities?

[1] http://www.tradingeconomics.com/spain/unemployment-rate

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