Tour company offers city’s homeless a chance to work, tell their story

Story by Julia Guilardi

BARCELONA – When Jose Martín was in the process of obtaining his doctorate in English literature from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, he never thought that he would end up living on the city’s streets.

“In Spain, there is a common idea that you are on the streets because you are useless. You’re a drunkard, you’re a drug addict, whatever. Well, I’m not a drunkard. I’m not on drugs. I’m an English philologist. People I’ve met on the streets include lawyers, physical trainers. It can happen to anyone,” said Martín, 42.

With a bachelor’s degree in English philology, or the study of languages written in historical contexts, Martín was working as an English-to-Spanish translator for a publishing company when it went bankrupt and he lost his job. He spent two years searching for a new one without success. Martín was forced out of his home and onto the streets of Barcelona, where he lived for 23 days before moving into a shelter.

Jose Martín (right) explains the history of the Medieval Quarter to a tour group, consisting of (from left): Richard Jones, Shirly Cohen, Galia Ashel and Felicity Smith. Jones heard about the tour from Tripadvisor, and Smith, Cohen and Ashel heard about the tour from friends.  Photo by Julia Guilardi

Jose Martín (right) explains the history of the Medieval Quarter to a tour group, consisting of (from left): Richard Jones, Shirly Cohen, Galia Ashel and Felicity Smith. Jones heard about the tour from Tripadvisor, and Smith, Cohen and Ashel heard about the tour from friends.
Photo by Julia Guilardi

Martín is one of the seven tour guides who tell their stories through Hidden City Tours, a Barcelona-based organization that aims to provide a unique perspective of the city by combining its history with the discussion of social issues, especially increased homelessness and poverty. The tours, which run daily, cover tourist hot spots including the Cathedral of Barcelona, the Jewish Quarter and Las Ramblas near Plaça Catalunya, the city center. The tours are also given by the city’s homeless in an effort to create jobs for those who are struggling without one.

The streets of Barcelona are not visibly crowded with homeless people. But they are present – mostly visible on park benches early in the morning before police or store owners have shooed them away. There is also a considerable population of people begging for change throughout the city’s top tourist destinations. Of 1.6 million residents of the city, an estimated 3,000 are homeless. But with the economy struggling and more people losing their jobs, experts say this statistic is continuing to increase.

In addition, those who are living on the streets often go unnoticed and suffer from lack of accessibility to homeless shelters. As a result, it is often impossible for them to return to the regular job market.

Lisa Grace, founder of Hidden City Tours, decided to use Barcelona’s status as the fourth most visited destination in Europe to generate jobs for some of the city’s homeless. Grace, 41, was inspired to establish the organization after she lost her job in market research in 2012.

“The real pushing factor was that I lost my job and I needed a job that was kind of flexible and that I could organize around family commitments. That was the main driving force behind it,” said Grace, who has been living in Barcelona since 2004.

Grace learned of similar programs launching in Bath, a small city in southwest England, and in London, and she decided to begin developing Hidden City Tours. The first tours launched in October 2013.

One of the main challenges throughout the process of building the organization has been finding suitable tour guides and training them, said Grace.

“Most of the guides come from social services. The main reason is the people who register through social services, they’ve got psychologists and they’ve got people who have known them for a couple of years. I’m in contact with [social workers]. It’s quite difficult to find people, because we’re asking for people who are fluent in English, French or German,” said Grace.

Hidden City Tours also looks for guides who are comfortable speaking in front of a group that can range from two to 20 people. Martín has given tours for large groups, but he prefers a smaller, more intimate setting.

“It’s about feedback: asking questions, me answering them back, like having a chat with friends,” said Martín.

The tour itself begins in Plaça Nova in Geneva Square and covers the Medieval Quarter, Jewish Quarter, Raval district and ends at Las Ramblas. Although the basic tour route remains the same, Martín noted that he might change some of the stops depending on his specific audience.

“There was a couple from Belgium. I explained to them in the beginning that we are going to mix history in and they said, ‘Forget about history. Tell me about you, and social aspects. I don’t want you to explain about history,’” said Martín. “I thought, ‘well, we don’t need to go there, there, or there’.” He pointed his finger, as if pointing to specific stops on the tour. “This is going to be fun.”

As is done with other tour programs in Barcelona, Martín and the other guides walk along the cobblestoned streets while explaining the area’s rich history. What makes Hidden City Tours unusual, however, is the incorporation of the guides’ personal stories from their time as homeless members of the Barcelona community.

During the tour, Martín gave a stop in front of El Chiringuito de Dios (translated to God’s Beachbar), a homeless shelter in the Raval district of Barcelona that he used to frequent during his time on the streets. After he was able to find a stable job housing, Martín went back and volunteered at the shelter to give back to one of the organizations that helped him during his struggles.  Photo by Julia Guilardi

During the tour, Martín stopped in front of El Chiringuito de Dios (translated to God’s Beachbar), a homeless shelter that he used to frequent during his time on the streets. After he was able to find stable housing, Martín went back and volunteered at the shelter to give back to one of the organizations that helped him.
Photo by Julia Guilardi

On his tours, Martín points out a soup kitchen in the Raval district called “El Chiringuito del Dios,” which translates in English to “God’s beach bar.” The owner, Wolfgang, helped Martín and many others who live on the streets.

Participants in the walking tours said they enjoy the integration of the social inclusion aspects along with the city’s history. Richard Jones, who attended a May 18 tour led by Martín, appreciated learning about different aspects of Barcelona.

“I thought it was a good mixture of history and social. It wasn’t too mainstream,” said Jones, who lives in London but was visiting Barcelona for a long weekend. Jones learned about Hidden City Tours from its positive ratings on Tripadvisor.

The guides receive 50 percent of the tour’s earnings for each one they lead, and the other 50 percent goes to Grace and the organization. The tours cost 15 euros per person, which translates to about $16.70. The guides typically give two or three tours each day.

This compensation was enough for Martín to leave city-sponsored housing and pay the rent on a shared flat.

“I was on the streets for 23 days, and then in shelters for almost a year, and after that I went to live in a shared flat run by the City Council and now I’m living in a shared flat, but normal. It’s not with social services. I’m living normally now,” said Martín.

Marta Olaria, of the Arrels Foundation, a Barcelona-based organization devoted to the attention and assistance of the city’s homeless, emphasized the benefits of providing the homeless community with employment.

“They feel like they belong. There’s a sense of belonging, you know, like more than getting any money or whatever,’” said Olaria, who is also a member of the foundation’s Department of Social Impact and Policy.

According to Grace, the organization has received overwhelming support in its mission to use Barcelona’s increasing tourism to combat its increasing homeless.

In the future, she hopes to expand the tours in respect to both offering more languages and launching different programs to attract more clientele, including more student groups, which according to Grace, currently serve as 60 percent to 80 percent of the tour revenue.

As for Martín, he hopes to find a more stable job in the future, but is just taking life as it comes for now.

“I would like to work again as a translator or to work at a more stable job,” he said, “but something I’ve learned in this world is not to make long-term plans because something changes from one day to the other.”

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4 thoughts on “Tour company offers city’s homeless a chance to work, tell their story

  1. Pingback: Bye Bye Barna | Maria Amasanti

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