Word on the Street

Tucked within the narrow streets of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, amid hoards of hot and harried tourists, a small group of people listen intently to the words of a homeless man. They will continue listening for two hours.

Tucked within the narrow streets of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, amid hoards of hot and harried tourists, a small group of people listen intently to the words of a homeless man. They will continue listening for two hours. 

This man has become their guide via a new social enterprise offering walking tours with a difference. Because, says Hidden City Tours founder Lisa Grace, who better to provide an insight into Spain’s most famous city than someone who has lived on its very streets?

Take, for example, neatly dressed and wellspoken José Martin, 41. University-educated and fluent in several languages, Martin made a comfortable living as a translator until the 2008 bursting of a housing bubble prompted the longest recession of Spain’s democratic era. As credit dried up and companies went bust, Martin was among thousands who lost their jobs.

Within a year, his circumstances changed dramatically. With Spanish unemployment hovering above 20 percent and a staggering 5.27 million people jobless, Martin could only hop from temporary job to temporary job until his time-limited unemployment benefits and savings dwindled to nothing.

“I thought I had the study, the means to survive but the crisis just destroyed everything I knew,” he says.

“I thought I was going to become one of those endless numbers of people on the streets who have no job. I decided that I didn’t want to end up like that so I tried to commit suicide — but I failed.”

With just a few books and shirts to his name, Martin found himself sleeping in cash points in the bitter cold of winter, until social services offered emergency housing. It was here that social workers connected him with Grace’s organisation and, in March, he joined her team of guides.

Grace, a British entrepreneur who has lived

in Spain for a decade, launched Hidden City Tours last year after herself ending up on the country’s lengthy dole queue in 2012. She had spotted a similar social enterprise in London, Unseen Tours, and instinctively knew the concept would fit Barcelona. Grace now has seven guides whom she says represent Spain’s new homeless profile.

“I’ve got a guy who comes from a wealthy middle class background and worked in New York for 20 years as a professional chef. I have another guy who was an architect. These are recent victims of Spain’s economic crisis. They’ve never had any alcohol or drug addiction problems; they’re professional people,” she says.

“I’m already seeing the changes in them. They come every day freshly shaven, they’ve got new haircuts. Their sense of pride has really changed. I now run the risk of losing a couple of guys who’ll say: ‘I’m going to try and get back to where I was before.’ But that’s the idea, to give them wings and help them fly.”

Martin is one of those who seems likely to transition back into the traditional workforce soon. Already he’s picked up an evening job as a night watchman and, though he admits getting back on his feet is a slow process, he believes he’s “on the road to recovering [his] old self”.

“Tourists are often surprised because, now that I have some money, I can clothe myself better than I used to,” he says. “They often say: ‘You can’t be homeless, because you look like me.’ I love that. I think it helps people to see that we are human beings after all, even if we were hidden and lost for a while.”

Grace says that, while her tours cover the usual Barcelona attractions, guides also weave in the city’s social history and their own personal stories. Impressed tourists often then invite their guide out for lunch.

“That is priceless; it gives the guides such a boost. Homeless people often talk about exclusion, that it’s like they’re on the outside looking in, watching other people go about their daily life but they’re not part of it and they can’t partake,” Grace says.

“Being homeless is like being invisible. So the social aspect of guiding is really important. It wasn’t intentional. It is one of the by-products that is a complete coincidence but which is probably more valuable than the money.”


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