How an Edinburgh-based company is giving homeless UK residents a fresh start.
“Look at this?” Paul nods to a couple of men at the exit of a shopping center built in the 1960s. There are few attendants who would draw the attention of their customers to public displays of drug use, but Paul Stewart is no ordinary guide; he was once homeless and lived in these streets. As we walk, it not only reveals Edinburgh’s well-documented traditional history, but also a more comprehensive portrait of its people and communities, as well as its challenges and the organizations working to combat them.
Paul’s Employer, Invisible Cities, is one of those projects. His tour guides across Scotland and the North of England have all experienced roaming and now, after training, are developing the skills and confidence that should help them better find long-term employment, sharing their perspective, expertise and unique perspectives on their communities.
Our particular tour, Alternative Leith, focuses on Edinburgh Harbor. A statue of Queen Victoria prompts Paul to describe his involvement in the opium trade, and later we see the distinctive curved apartment building that housed heroin addict Sick Boy in Trainspotting (Paul runs a separate fan tour). Amid more typical highlights, like a site related to the origins of golf, we visit a community vegetable garden and hear about Leith Conversation CafÃ©, a project to combat the loneliness of immigrants.
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âI own this land,â Paul explains, pointing to a section of the quay a few meters from a Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s top notch real estate, but it’s also only a few square feet. This is where Mary, Queen of Scots, landed in 1561 upon her return from exile in France, and Paul convinced the council to reserve this patch for her while he raises funds for a statue.
Now in its fifth year, Invisible Cities was founded by Zakia Moulaoui Guery after her experience working for the street football charity The Homeless World Cup. âIt gave me the opportunity to talk to people who were going through a difficult time. They would say to me ‘as a homeless person you feel a bit stigmatized, you feel like people don’t understand how this happens,’ âZakia explains. âWhile visiting projects in Romania and Lebanon, I heard stories of homelessness because it was my job, but if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have done it. I was like, “How can you make that happen for people who are traveling, how can people have access to these stories?” Â»Â» A tourist guide in Greece gave Zakia her last inspiration.
Sheffield-Photographer-025 / Invisible Cities / Flikr;
It launched Invisible Cities in Edinburgh in 2016. It has since expanded to Glasgow, Manchester and York and is about to launch in Cardiff, Wales, with longer term plans for Europe. continental.
Potential guides are referred to the project by charities. âThey’ll say, ‘We’ve got John, he’s having a great conversation,’ Zakia says, although the social enterprise hires a lot of people without a natural gift of chatter. The aim is to provide them with skills that will help them find stable employment beyond the invisible cities.
âSome people just want to gain self-confidence and then find a full-time job, others want to go back to college, others, like Paul, really want to be a tour guide,â says Zakia. âFor women who have experienced domestic violence, lack of self-confidence is a major problem for them to return to work. ”
Securing housing is Invisible Cities’ top priority for trainee guides who still sleep rough. They also learn public speaking and creative writing skills, and then professional guides and history students help them build and practice their tours.
Zakia says, âSome people have a very clear idea of ââwhat they want to focus on. âI want to promote womenâ¦ I want to focus on crimeâ¦â Others have a character or a building in mind as a starting point, others have no idea. Most of the time, we want it to be something they are passionate about.
Themes for the visit to Edinburgh include the city’s notable women and the evolution of the historic Royal Mile. Zakia runs her own tour spotlighting local social enterprises. In Manchester you can join Andy on ‘Ales and Alleyways’ for the stories behind the local pubs, and in York you can take a ‘Health and Wealth’ tour led by Miles, a former banker who has battled alcoholism and roaming.
Each tour begins with some information about the Invisible Cities, but the sharing of personal stories of roaming varies from guide to guide.
“It’s very important because of who we are and what we do, but we don’t put words in people’s mouths, they may not want to talk about it,” Zakia says. âSome people don’t want to advertise ‘this is who I am’,â she explains, âbut if homelessness is something that has happened to you, you can increase respect for it. It’s about making your story your own.
Paul’s tour touches on his personal journey. He happily points to a church where the priest once gave him a bed for the night and as we stop to admire the 19th century building occupied by Leith Police Station, he reveals that he spent time in the bad side of his doors during his difficult youth. When officers recently suggested he lead his visit inside, he joked,
âI hope your cells have improved! “
Invisible Cities welcomed 4,130 people on 597 tours in 2019. The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on his work.
âWe have lost 100% of our income. We used to work with cruise lines and coach companies and we lost all the contracts within a week, âZakia sighs. âA lot of these companies have gone bankrupt. It had a long term effect.
A grant helped the social enterprise support their guides during the lockdown, and they started creating online tours. These have proven popular with American tourists on the ground and for virtual office parties during the holiday season. They will continue to be developed alongside the in-person versions. Currently, you can join Paul for a live tour of Edinburgh on Zoom or select a pre-recorded version with 360-degree technology. An online tour of Manchester Sports Relations is coming soon.
Prior to joining Invisible Cities, Paul was homeless several times and lived with mental health issues. He now has a permanent role as Zakia’s guide, mentor, support and most recently, online tour maker. âI found a job in the pandemic, in tourism! He jokes. Former banker Miles is another success story, now working part-time in addition to touring York.
In 2019, three Invisible Cities guides found jobs elsewhere, three more moved on to education and training, and 10 new hires were hired. The less tangible impact of the organization translates into an increase in confidence and self-esteem.
âIt’s hard to measure this on a large scale because it’s so different for each person,â Zakia says, but she thinks Sonny, who runs the Edinburgh Crime and Punishment tour, has a polished take on success. âHe said, ‘I’ve been to jail several times but since I joined you in 2017 I haven’t come back.’â