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These walking tours with a twist let homeless people show you their city

Invisible Cities trains homeless people to give tourists a unique view of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, and York

Walking tours are a staple of any city break worth its salt – being escorted round landmarks, hearing a few funny anecdotes and trying to avoid any crowd interaction. But what if, instead of reading about the landmarks on Wikipedia, your guide had used them for shelter?

That’s the idea behind Invisible Cities. Its walking tours are run by people who have experienced homelessness, offering a unique perspective on well-trodden tourist trails.

“Because people have had a different experience of the city than I might have had, having not experienced homelessness, that’s what makes it unique,” says founder Zakia Moulaoui.

“A monument might have a different relevance to them if this is next to where they slept or sought support. They’re able to tell you about the city but in a slightly different light – how it’s relevant to them.”

After beginning in 2016 with one city, Edinburgh, Invisible Cities now offers tours in three other cities: York, Manchester, and Glasgow. It’s trained over 100 people, and currently has 16 guides.

Over 100 people have been trained by Invisible Cities. Image: Emma Ledwith/Invisible Cities

In a previous life, Moulaoui travelled the world seeing what other countries were doing to help the homeless. She was inspired by a tour in Greece, where a street paper vendor gave holidaymakers a tour of Athens.

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“I thought okay, this is definitely something we can do in Scotland,” says Moulaoui.

From there, she approached charities and social enterprises in Edinburgh, getting people on board. The first tour got up and running in the summer of 2016. Now, Invisible Cities is targeting three more cities: Cardiff, Liverpool, and Norwich.

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“By summer next year we should be in seven cities”.

Recruited through organisations in the city – hostels, soup kitchen, or even the Big Issue – participants are given training, with no obligation to eventually become a guide.

“A lot of people will use it for confidence building, learning new skills, making new friends. The training is open to everyone, no matter what their story is,” says Moulaoui.

Invisible Cities, walking tours
Tour guides come up with their own routes – sharing their stories and passions. Image: Invisible Cities

Those that do become guides come up with their own tours. They’ve got the choice of route and contents – including how much of their personal story to include.

Some guides are very historical and stick to the facts. One guide, a former construction worker, will share the secrets behind Edinburgh’s buildings. Others will talk about the social make-up of a city.

“All our tours are a mix of history, which you would have on any other tour and you would say it doesn’t really matter who tells you about that,” adds Moulaoui. “In Edinburgh you might learn about the Royal Mile, Greyfriar, all of this. But they also have local knowledge and personal stories. People put part of who they are into their tours.

“We want tours to be a positive experience because homelessness is such a dark and gloomy issue. Though we do talk about the reality of experiencing homelessness, it is also positive. We highlight where people can seek support, the community spirit in some areas, or what they wish would happen.”

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Big Issue Invest, the investment arm of the Big Issue, has played a big role in helping Invisible Cities do what it does, providing investment as well as advice and support.

The tours make a huge difference, says Moulaoui. For those who take part in the training, building confidence is important – people who might not even see working as an option begin.

It also helps guides to belong in their cities. “Our cities belong to all of us, but when you’ve had a negative experience in the city you might feel like you don’t belong in the place,” she adds.

Leading a walking tour flips this on its head – you become a representative for the city, sharing your own narrative. In turn, this helps change people’s perceptions of homelessness, and see people who have been through the experience as people in their own right.

“The message we want to convey when we talk about homelessness is that people are people in every circumstance,” says Moulaoui. 

“There are no two people that are the same, and we should take them as that and not just think that every homeless person is a certain way. We do want the tours to break down the stigma of homelessness by putting people first.”

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