Housing

I've been homeless in this city. Now I'm helping tourists discover its hidden secrets

Homeless tour guides are bringing history to life in the UK’s cities

John Giles' tour offers a glimpse of Cardiff's radical history and present. Image: Invisible Cities

How well do you know the streets you walk down every day? Spend an afternoon in Cardiff with John Giles and you might discover the city through a new lens.

He isn’t your normal tour guide. After becoming homeless, telling the story of his city has given Giles the opportunity to rebuild. And so, every Friday and Saturday at 2.30pm, he uses his unique perspective to share the hidden history of the Welsh capital.

Giles put together his ‘Poetry, Protest and Place’ tour working with Invisible Cities, a social enterprise training those with experience of homelessness to earn money while uncovering another side of the UK’s cities.

“A lot of it was to get me out of the hostel for part of the day, and get me in an environment for part of my wellbeing,” 31-year-old Giles tells The Big Issue.

“As the weeks went by I learned more and more about the city that I’d grown up in. I just fell in love with the project.”

“To be honest, it’s one of the best experiences I’ve been through in my life,” he adds. “It provided me with a sense of purpose that I was missing at that time.”

Having worked in call centres, Giles says it’s refreshing to have a job where people actually want to talk to you. Image: Invisible Cities

After losing his job in January last year, Giles was evicted from his flat and found himself living in Salvation Army accommodation. This situation made it hard to get a job – but when another resident of his hostel invited him along, Invisible Cities offered both income and a chance to build his confidence.

Welsh history flies under the radar, not celebrated as much as it should be, Giles believes. There’s also a radical recent history, sitting just under the surface. His tour mixes his passion for history and performing poems with a bit of his personal story.

Stop outside Cardiff library and learn about the campaigns to stop staff being replaced with volunteers. Or Womanby Street, and discover the campaigns to save music venues.

What about Cardiff Market, where Dic Penderyn was executed? Or the statue of Betty Campbell, the first Black headteacher in Wales?

Another stop looks at a 19th century housing court, accommodation for dock workers which squeezed 500 people into 27 houses.

“The point I make there is looking back, even though my mental health suffered massively when I was in temporary accommodation, at least I had a door that locked,” Giles says.

“We tend to overlook the areas we come from, as opposed to when we go and visit other cities.”

Local-led campaigns to save music venues feature in Giles’ bespoke history of Cardiff. Image: Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities began in 2016 with tours in Edinburgh. It operates in cities including York, Glasgow, and now Cardiff. The social enterprise has received support and investment from Big Issue Invest, the social investment arm of the Big Issue.

Tour guides are recruited through homeless organisations in the city – such as hostels, soup kitchens and sometimes The Big Issue – and given training to build their confidence. The tours are unique, with content guided by guides’ personal interests.

In Cardiff, Invisible Cities is partnered with The Wallich, a homelessness and rough sleeping charity. Giles is now living in a housing association flat.

“Being in an environment where people are happy to see you, and want to hear from you and have a conversation. That’s great,” Giles says.

“And to be able to tell stories about the city I’ve always lived in. The city, yes I’ve been homeless in, but also have a lot of my good memories in.”

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