We love local recommendations about city destinations; that secretive cafe hidden down an alleyway, or a stunning park a stones throw away from the city centre. Tours run by locals allow us to see a city through the eyes of those who live and breathe it.
This is the philosophy of Invisible Cities, a social enterprise that trains homeless people to become walking tour guides. It believes that those who have spent the most time on a city’s streets are the best people to tell its stories.
By providing mentoring and training with professional guides and storytellers, workshops on public speaking and first aid, Invisible Cities is helping people to get back on their feet.
In York, the training process for Invisible Cities is in full swing. Tours on a variety of subjects, including the city’s railway heritage and its famous snickelways and alleyways, are set to begin in June. Here tour guides practice with volunteers and make use of individual mentors helping them to research their tours.
In addition to providing homeless people with employment, Invisible Cities also invest in projects designed to help the wider homeless community. The organisation delivered Christmas presents to 150 homeless people in Scotland in 2018, and has also donated to the Street Barber in Edinburgh, which provides free haircuts and shaves to homeless men.
An Invisible Cities tour in Edinburgh. Image: Luke Bennett.
Paul is one of the beneficiaries of Invisible Cities. His Edinburgh-based tour, Leith: The Trainspotting Generation has been running since January 2018. “Doing the research for my tours was amazing – and has piqued an interest in gaining full-time employment in this field… I have recently attended interviews with eight production companies, including the BBC.” After talking with a representative from Edinburgh City of Literature, a UNESCO trust, Paul has decided to write a book.
Invisible Cities tours also provide an indication of places in the UK that have high numbers of homeless people. In York, figures released by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government revealed that the number of homeless people living on the streets rose by 61 per cent in 2018, three times the average for the Yorkshire and Humber area.
Kenny Lieske, director of Good Organisation, an Invisible Cities partner in York, explained that “a quarter of all the homeless people who died in the region in 2017 died in York, equating to 11 deaths in a single year, which is one of the reasons we were so keen to team up with Invisible Cities to launch a practical project to support local homeless people.”
York’s high homelessness figures sit in stark contrast to its booming tourism industry. Over seven million people visit the city each year, with tourism contributing £600 million annually to its local economy.
Cities including Oxford, Bristol and Cardiff have registered interest in the project, and the organisation has plans to launch in a city outside of the UK in the next few years. As the UK witnesses rising levels of homelessness, Invisible Cities is providing a unique model to tackle an increasingly common urban crisis.