Courtesy of Hidden City Tours
Revealing the hidden city
They move between the homes of friends and family. They are called the ‘invisible homeless’, a category young foreign residents may sometimes find themselves in as they negotiate the shadowy world of off-the-books employment and temperamental sub-letting. Although the typical profile of a homeless person is low-skilled, middle-aged and male, there is an increasing number of younger rough sleepers with educational qualifications.
As Juan Carlos explains, first you lose your job, then the money runs out and then the love often runs out as well. The Catalan and Spanish governments devotes the lion’s share of their resources in this sector to ensuring children don’t end up on the street, so it’s usually the men who slip through the cracks. If you don’t get a job soon enough, things catch up with you. “You can’t imagine that moment when you realise you are completely alone and on the street,” Fernando adds.
A former taxi driver, Fernando is multilingual and happily chatters away to the group in English or French. He loves to travel. “I’ve been to the UK, most of Europe and even India,” he tells me. “I went with my wife...” His voice falters only slightly before returning to his cheerful demeanour. “Beautiful countries!”
Fernando spent a year sleeping rough. It’s hard to imagine as he sits there in his shirt and tie. His outspoken exuberance contrasts strikingly with Juan Carlos’s quieter personality. Perhaps the 10 years Juan Carlos spent on the streets after losing his job at an appliance manufacturing factory has had a more profound impact on him.
He met Briton and long-term Barcelona resident Lisa Grace last year when she contacted Arrels Fundació, a charity that runs an open centre providing facilities such as showers and storage. Juan Carlos had started visiting the centre to use the showers and, with help from the foundation, had secured state-protected housing. Having just lost her job as a market researcher, Grace had the idea to start her own enterprise and was inspired by similar projects such as London’s Unseen Tours. When Arrels Fundació introduced her to interested candidates, she immediately pegged Juan Carlos as the weakest candidate. However, in the spirit of the project, that of inclusion, she gave him a try. As quirky as life is, Juan Carlos became Hidden City Tours’ first guide.
“The aim is to generate enough income to provide our guides with sustainable wages that they can use to move forward,” says Grace. “Coming out of homelessness is a long and slow fight. There is a great deal of responsibility and we need to be careful and considered in our approach as we learn how to work with our guides.” The guides receive 50 percent of the income of any tour they work on. Her aim is to grow the business to the extent that more guides can be recruited. The London tour has expanded in the past three years to enable six homeless people to be employed, and similar growth here would meet Grace’s hopes for the enterprise.
As we share a post-tour coffee, Fernando and I get into an animated discussion about the state of society and the vicious circles people get trapped in. We talk about the need for a change in the system and how not enough importance is given to the people at the bottom.
Juan Carlos shakes his head at us. “I don’t want to be important; I want to be useful.”
- To book a tour, visit www.hiddencitytours.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Tours costs €10 or €8 for retired people, students and under-16s. Groups are kept small and intimate, so places are limited and you need to book in advance.
- To find out how you can support El Chiringuito de Dios, visit
- Arrels Fundació: www.arrelsfundacio.org