Homelessness in Barcelona – The Facts
Homelessness is a growing problem in Barcelona. According to Arrels Fundacio, an organisation dedicated to helping the city’s homeless, in 2013 there were about 3,000 homeless people in Barcelona (900 of these sleep on the streets, 600 use irregular settlements and the remainder rely on public and private resources). This figure increased by 47% since 2008, when the economic recession combined with the bursting of the country’s real estate bubble saw unemployment rise, resulting in many people no longer being able to afford their homes.
There is also a myriad of other reasons that people end up on the street, including breakdown of relationships, drug and alcohol dependency, mental health issues and discrimination or lack of legal status (i.e. immigrants and other minority groups). A study by Ajuntament de Barcelona found that 57% of homeless people attributes their situation to socio-economic / socio-labour conditions, 24.7% pointed to alcoholism, while 7.1% stated that they had a drug addiction.
Arrels Fundacio reports that the average profile of a homeless person in Barcelona is a male in his 40’s, half of whom have children. 60% have secondary education, 12% have higher education qualification and 50% are actively looking for a job. However, the stigma attached to homelessness means that many of these people are unable to find the employment that will help them improve their situation. It is a complex and multi-faceted problem and one that is not easily solved.
The fight against the stigmatization and the criminalization must be a priority: homelessness is not a crime; it’s a scandal! – Ajuntament de Barcelona
Hidden City Tours – Giving Opportunities to Barcelona’s Homeless
One company in Barcelona that is attempting to help the homeless is Hidden City Tours – a social enterprise which offers visitors to the city an alternative to the traditional sight-seeing walking tour. The main difference is that Hidden City Tours only employees tour guides who are homeless. Each guide is hand-picked by a local homeless charity and subsequently follows a 60 to 80 hour training programme with a local historian. As a result, tourists are treated to a unique tour, combining the social history of a beautiful city full of culture with the social reality of life on the streets. It truly offers visitors the chance to see a different side of Barcelona – one that you would never be able to find by looking at websites or trawling through guide books.
Who best to show you around the streets of Barcelona than someone who has lived on those very streets – Hidden City Tours
Hidden City Tours was established in 2013 by UK born Barcelona resident, Lisa Grace. Lisa tells us she moved to Barcelona in 2004, but lost her job in marketing in 2012. While searching for other opportunities, she stumbled across a project in the UK which offered tours of London by homeless people – and immediately believed that the same concept would work in Barcelona. Barcelona is the fourth most visited city in Europe (8 million visitors per year), with a significant proportion of its visitors coming from the nations that are ranked as the most charitable – therefore, Lisa decided to use the city’s biggest asset to help the city’s homeless.
Hidden City Tours started as a small company, with only two English speaking guides. However, its increasing popularity – a 3 fold increase in visitors in the past 12 months – has allowed Lisa to find work for many more homeless people. The company now employs 7 homeless or previously homeless tour guides and offers tours in English, Spanish, French and German. However, Lisa explains that finding suitable tour guides is one of the biggest challenges that Hidden City Tours faces:
Whilst there may be over 3,000 homeless in Barcelona, when you apply certain filters such as willingness and eagerness to work, clean of drug and alcohol addictions, public speaking abilities and of course fluent in English, French or German… you can count on one hand the number of potential candidates that comes through. – Lisa Grace, Hidden City Tours Founder
The impact that Hidden City Tours has on its guides is nothing short of remarkable. Not only does it provide them with an income which would otherwise be unavailable to them (the return to work percentage among the homeless in Barcelona is 1%), but the chance to meet people and share their stories gives them a feeling of self-worth which allows them to re-evaluate their lives and their goals. Lisa explained to us that some of the guides haven’t seen their children in years and had been rejected by them in the past – but with their new confidence and self-esteem, these guides are now rebuilding their relationships with their children.
Income is just one side of the story. Social exclusion resulting from homelessness and poverty is a much deeper issue. We have seen radical changes in the guides since they started working, and in very little time. Very soon after they start working, the self esteem starts to improve and the changes in their physical appearance are amazing. – Lisa Grace
We had the pleasure of spending a morning with one of the Hidden City Tour guides, Ramón Holgado. During our tour of the Gothic and El Raval districts (and over a glass of wine in a café afterwards), we spoke to Ramón about his fascinating past, the events that led up to him living on the streets and the positive impact that Hidden City Tours is having on his life.
Ramón is 65 years old. He was born in Salamanca in Spain, but moved to USA in his early 20’s where he trained as a professional chef at New York City culinary school. During his time in New York, a city that Ramón remembers with fondness, he cooked for a number of very famous people, including Omar Sharif, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Julio Iglesias and Dustin Hoffman. However, Ramón’s life changed when he moved back to Spain in 2008 and quickly found that there was no place for a chef in his 50’s in the recession hit city.
Then Ramón’s brother, who he was very close to and speaks of with a sad smile, died suddenly, followed by his father two months later. The grief took its toll on Ramón who fell very ill himself, suffering a breakdown and spending months in hospital. When Ramón had recovered, he found himself living on the streets.
From talking to Ramón, it is obvious that he is a very well-educated man, with a huge amount of life experience and a love of good music – we chatted at length about Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. He is a clear illustration of the impact that the recession has had in Barcelona – an increasing number of middle-aged, educated people are finding themselves on the streets due to a significant shift in their circumstances.
However, Ramón also demonstrates what a positive impact Hidden City Tours can have on homeless people living in Barcelona. He talks about how he can now afford to live in shared accommodation, rather than in a cardboard box on a street, how his self-confidence has drastically increased and most importantly, Ramón has started to rebuild his relationship with his son in New York. He speaks of his son with a huge smile on his face – the sign of a very proud father.
Our tour with Ramón was definitely a highlight of our trip to Barcelona. Rather than visiting attraction after attraction, he led us through the real neighbourhoods of Barcelona – areas that would be skipped over by other conventional tours. We were shown a city of real contrast – a 5 star hotel next to a soup kitchen, a newly developed film theatre in an area with working prostitutes and drug dealers… Ramón was keen to emphasise that these tours were not about ‘minimising’ the city. Instead, he wanted to tourists to understand what Barcelona really is – a beautiful city, but one with problems.
Throughout our tour, we also made a number of café stops, most notably ‘4 Cats’ (the café in which Dali and Picasso would have their coffee) and Caelum (a bakery which sells products made by monks at the local monastery). Another highlight for us was visiting the Old Hospital de la Santa Creu, one of the finest examples of Catalan civil-Gothic architecture in the city. Most tour groups are not allowed into the building itself, which now functions as a library – however, due to the very small tour group sizes of Hidden City Tours, we were allowed inside to see the wonderful interior.
Our tour with Ramón was a truly wonderful experience. By the time we finished, we had not only learnt a great deal about Barcelona, but we had made a new friend. We wish Ramón all the very best for the future.
Our thanks go to Lisa and Ramón for giving their time to chat with us in-depth.
How Can You Help?
Sign up for a tour: If you are visiting Barcelona, book a tour with Hidden City Tours. The open classic tour (€15 per person) is a 1 hour 45 mins tour around the Gothic Quarter and the El Raval district and is a perfect introduction to the city. If you are a foodie, sign up for the Boquería tour (€20 per person for groups, or €25 per person for a private tour for 2 – drink and tapas included), where Ramón will guide you through the famous market and will give you tips on local seasonal foods. There are also plans in the near future for an architecture tour (one of the guides is an architect) and a ‘Street Life Tour’, aimed at teaching groups of students about the realities of living on the street.
Spread the word! If you know someone that is going to Barcelona, tell them about Hidden City Tours. As the demand for Hidden City Tour grows, so does the need for new guides! So, the more people who sign up, the more people Hidden City Tours can help.
Let us know: Will you check out Hidden City Tours next time you go? Tell us below!