The Invisible Cities initiative offers tourists the chance to walk the streets of Britain’s best cities with people who truly call them home; homeless tour guides who are trained to take you off the beaten track and straight to the heart of their towns.
Edinburgh is one of the UK’s most recognisable cities. From the moment your train pulls into Waverley’s glass structure, the inevitable smell of rain on the Scottish capital’s trademark grey stone lets you know you’ve arrived, as you meander up the Royal Mile.
Take the tour, as you’ve never known it before:
You think you know Edinburgh. You can conjure the taste of Innis & Gunn in the Old Town pubs and the feel of tartan in gift shops presided over by people with lilting accents who live and work in tall terraced houses nestled between Arthur’s Seat and Edinburgh Castle.
But as he pounded the pavement on his Crime and Punishment themed tour, Sonny Murray, a Glasgow-born guide told UNILAD he probably knows Edinburgh better than you because he slept rough here for years.
The Scottish capital is synonymous with crime, punishment and the ghosts of the past. Sonny should know.
After becoming homeless at a young age, he’s been on the receiving end himself, resorting to crime to survive and serving time in Her Majesty’s Prison Edinburgh for the trouble.
While the modern criminal justice system leaves much to be desired, Sonny jokes it could be worse.
Sonny’s tour – which he’s been leading for Invisible Cities‘ two years of operation – begins at Maggie Dickson’s pub with the incredible true story of how the fish hawker known as Half-Hangit Maggie survived a public execution in the early 1700s.
In Edinburgh of old, petty criminals – often from the homeless community – were more commonly abused in a brutal and public manner to provide a means of deterrent to so-called vagrants for disturbing the peace.
Hearing the stories of abuse from Sonny, a heroin addict in recovery, is a particularly poignant perspective.
Along the way, Sonny revisits Deacon Brody, the character who inspired Jekyll and Hyde, and Burke and Hare’s bodysnatching at Greyfriars Kirkyard cemetery, where you’ll also learn about the Covenanters and the first concentration camp in history.
But, Sonny tells UNILAD, his own criminal days are over and his fascination with Edinburgh’s dark past is voyeuristic. He is now off the streets and living in housing with his girlfriend, Biffy – also a formerly homeless Invisible Cities tour guide – and their daughter, Charlotte.
Biffy, 27, runs a tour called The Paths of Inspirational Women in Edinburgh.
So, Sonny says it’s important for him to also take tourists to the many social enterprise projects which help vulnerable people like he once was; after all, projects like Invisible Cities have a part to play in the journey.
A harsh reality, crime and punishment followed by rehabilitation and a better life for Sonny and his family, you might say.
Dotted between the city’s picture postcard viewpoints and friendly pubs are the headquarters of various homeless support organisations – from Streetwork UK to Access Point and Shelter.
There’s also the Serenity Café, the UK’s first addiction recovery cafe, by way of the Grassmarket Community Project, a social enterprise which is home to Invisible Cities.
Enterprises like Trusty Paws also look out for the pets of homeless people in Glasgow:
So, Sonny makes these stops on his tour, he says:
There are problems in this city with homelessness and that, but I like to point out the places that help people in Edinburgh.
Sonny thinks honesty is the best policy, so when group members on his tour ask personal questions about his own experience of homelessness, he doesn’t hold back.
After all, 37 per cent of households are just one pay check away from not being able to afford their mortgage, 31 per cent of homeless people end up on the streets having lost short-term tenancies, and 20 per cent of women who resort to life on the streets do so to escape a violent home, according to the ONS and Shelter.
We might as well be honest about a harsh reality which could befall anyone, spurred on by cuts to welfare, local government and mental health funding, as well as a lack of social housing.
Demand for homes currently outstrips supply with the need for between 38,000 and 46,000 new homes in Edinburgh over 10 years, reports Edinburgh Evening News.
So, if you ask, Sonny will tell you about how homelessness puts people at risk from the elements, particularly as winter is approaching and the physical toll on the fittest of people becomes life-threatening.
But, moreover, he’ll describe the emotional toll of how losing your home and taking to the streets can cause untold catastrophic consequences, with some rough sleepers resorting to drug and alcohol abuse to cope.
UNILAD met a few of Manchester’s homeless people to see how Spice is ravaging their community:
Paul, a tour guide newer to the project is a little more reserved than Sonny. He tells UNILAD most people in Scotland are compassionate due to raised awareness of homelessness, particularly in terms of alcohol and drug abuse, but adds he simply asks people not judge.
From experience, he states:
Most homeless people aren’t on drink and drugs. They turn to drink and drugs because they’re homeless.
Sonny agrees most people who join the Invisible Cities tours are positive and ‘happy to see someone able to turn their life around’ and are sick of the tourist trap, traversing new cities on pathways peppered with Starbucks shops and selfie spots.
Indeed, as a tourist, you may feel a certain degree of separation from your surroundings – strangers streaming past you on the streets and places you don’t recognise.
As someone who used to live in York – a city descended upon every weekend by those enjoying the city’s unique attributes – I can attest to the fact most locals don’t see tourists with sympathetic eyes.
There is no such feeling with the walking guides of Invisible Cities. They want to share their story, because it is so often dismissed.
Herein, this very unusual but natural human exchange between local and visitor, lies the key to Invisible Cities and its success.
Paul, an Edinburgh local originally from the port district of Leith, has a long history of homelessness. He tells UNILAD he’s been homeless about ten times since childhood.
He described how his ‘difficult upbringing’ led him to a life of crime, just like Sonny, in the hopes of feeding and housing his son.
With the help of support centres and local infrastructure, and a lot of resilience and determination, Paul has found housing and is developing his skillset with the views to finding permanent employment thanks to Invisible Cities and the training they offer.
Paul, who demonstrated his keen eye for detail and the pensive nature of all good historians on his tour, said the opportunity to become a walking guide was a ‘dream come true’.
He’s been showing Edinburgh tourists the vibrant cultural worlds of Leith and Shore and narrating the story of the ‘Trainspotting Generation’, the young people who were affected by the area’s pervasive heroin addiction, for less than a year.
But his confidence and warmth shine through as he explains the literature and films he grew up with, using his own life experience with addiction to recreate the time.
In his matter-of-fact manner, Paul said:
If you told me six months ago I’d be doing this tour I’d have told you you were crazy.
Invisible Cities is unique in its efforts to provide a public service as a consequence of offering training to the hard up and vulnerable.
The social enterprise is brainchild of Zakia Moulaoui, who told UNILAD:
A city is completely different to you as it is to me. For someone with a different background – especially one of homelessness – it’s completely different again.
People who’ve lived on the streets have a story to tell and I thought, with the backdrop of the city, Invisible Cities could be a great way for them to tell their story.
Zakia moved to Edinburgh ten years ago and started working with projects which support homeless people all across the globe.
Her international experience helped her understand how hard it can be to develop large-scale initiatives to provide housing and support to rough sleepers.
It turns out the answer was literally on her doorstep.
Two years ago she founded Invisible Cities, a local level initiative which trains people with a background of homelessness to be walking tour guides of their own cities and which offers those alternative tours to locals and tourists.
As anyone who lives in a city with a high proportion of homelessness will understand, it’s hard to pass by those struggling to get back on their feet and do nothing or keep your head down and ignore the inconvenient truth.
Social stigmas still stop us speaking to others we pre-judge – but Zakia says it warms her heart to hear feedback from customers saying Invisible Cities tours are like ‘going on a trip with a friend’.
The philanthropist explained with Invisible Cities works so well for all parties:
You want to go on a tour with someone you can relate to, someone you can laugh with, somebody who can teach you something, and someone with whom you have a personal connection.
Hopefully the experience breaks down some of the misconceptions you had and I think with that comes understanding and change.
Zakia has rolled out the initiative in Scotland’s second city, Glasgow, a bustling hub at the cutting edge of creative arts, food and drink.
Invisible Cities tours in Manchester, England – where the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s recently announced their goal to end the need for rough sleeping by 2020 – are also on the horizon.
Zakia hopes her grassroots efforts to include the homeless community in tourist infrastructure will promote diversity and cohesion in our cities.
Indeed, Bev Hughes, Greater Manchester’s Deputy Mayor for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice and Fire doesn’t believe the growing problem of homelessness will be ‘solved by doing more of the same’.
She told UNILAD:
Ultimately, I would like to see us exert greater control over our welfare system so that we can direct this resource into supporting homelessness prevention and promoting wellbeing.
Make no mistake, the effort to tackle the humanitarian crisis that is homelessness and rough sleeping is a key priority for the Combined Authority.
Whatever our challenges as a country we are rich enough to put a roof over every head every night of the week – our aim is that, in Greater Manchester, this will soon become the norm.
It’s grassroots enterprises like Invisible Cities which can empower people on the ground across the UK to help our cities become as rich and enjoyable for all as a big plate of haggis.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]