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 in Barcelona - Meet the Team
The Hidden City Tours team, with founder Lisa Grace. Photo courtesy of Lisa Grace.

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’s Story

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.

Hidden City Tours in Barcelona - Ramon
Chatting to Ramón from Hidden City Tours

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.

Hidden City Tours - On Tour with Ramón
Fabio walking around the streets of Barcelona with Ramón

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!


37 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Nikita 10 April, 2015 Subscriber

    This is a very real problem in so many parts of the world, and the solution certainly isn’t to throw money at it. It’s good to see solutions that look beyond the poverty and at the other social problems that come with homelessness. I’ll definitely be recommending this to any friends who visit Barcelona!

    • Karianne 12 April, 2015 Contributor

      Hi Nikita. We totally agree that it is great to see an approach that doesn’t involve just throwing money at the issue – it is giving these homeless people the skills and self confidence needed for them to really get back on their feet again. Just by talking to Ramon, we could see how much of an impact becoming a tour guide had had on him. It really does change their lives!

  2. Marie-Carmen 12 April, 2015 Subscriber

    This is a beautiful way to get people more aware of the situation in town and get the homeless also involved in something that might help them change their situation. That’s a beautiful idea and it should really spread in other areas! I’d sure book something with those guys if I get to Barcelona.

    • Karianne 12 April, 2015 Contributor

      Hi Marie-Carmen, it really does raise awareness of such an important issue – until we visited, we didn’t realise the extent of the problem in Barcelona . We have heard about a couple of similar social enterprises in the UK (in London and Bath) and another in Prague, which we are going to check out next week!

  3. Joe Ankenbauer 12 April, 2015 Subscriber

    The homeless population is one of our downfalls as human beings. It’s great to see solutions to the issue, other than throwing money at it. Great article!

    • Karianne 12 April, 2015 Contributor

      Hi Joe, it really is great to see such an innovative approach to problem – it really does make a difference!

  4. Bethaney - Flashpacker Family 12 April, 2015 Subscriber

    We are constantly surprised at the amount of homelessness we encounter on our travels around the US. It’s not a huge problem at home in NZ so it’s always shocking to us.

    • Karianne 12 April, 2015 Contributor

      Hi Bethaney, we live in London so we see it quite regularly. In the past 5 years, the number of people sleeping on the street in London has increased by 77%, which is a shockingly high figure. So we were glad to find out that London has a similar social enterprise that we are really looking forward to checking out soon!

  5. Sophie 12 April, 2015 Subscriber

    This is such a great idea. And it gives back to the people and the places you are visiting. Such a good cause. And you get to see the real side to a city!

    • Karianne 12 April, 2015 Contributor

      Hi Sophie, it really does give you the chance to see what a city is really like. We visited areas that we probably never would have seen without Ramon and got a real understanding of the people that live in those areas. Such a great tour!

  6. Christa 12 April, 2015 Subscriber

    Wow, what a powerful post and a great idea for helping the homeless!

    • Karianne 12 April, 2015 Contributor

      Thanks Christa, it really is a great idea and we are really happy to have spread the word about them. They are such a great organisation!

  7. Sarah 12 April, 2015 Subscriber

    This is by far the most original tourist tour I’ve ever heard about! What a fantastic initiative! I was considering going to Barcelona soon, if I do, I will definitely join the tour. I think it’s incredible! Thanks for sharing!

    • Karianne 13 April, 2015 Contributor

      We really can’t recommend it highly enough! It was such a great experience!

  8. Brenda & Andrew (@DishOurTown) 12 April, 2015 Subscriber

    Barcelona is one of our favorite cities in Europe. This was a very touching post and I thank you for informing me about Lisa Grace, Hidden City Tours and Ramon. My family and I are New Yorkers, we see the same dichotomy here in our neighborhoods; luxury buildings right next to the Mission on the Bowery. Hidden City Tours gives back in such a significant way, it’s truly inspiring. We will definitely take their tour (especially the food tour) next time we’re in Barcelona and look forward to meeting Ramon or one of his colleagues.

    • Karianne 13 April, 2015 Contributor

      Hi Brenda! You are welcome – I am glad you enjoyed the post! We are already looking forward to going back and booking the food tour with Ramon. He is so passionate about food and Barcelona – it was so great to learn from him.

      We are visiting your city in June – really looking forward to it!

  9. Alli 13 April, 2015 Subscriber

    Great writing, I love how powerful and passionate you came across in this post! 🙂 What a great initiative. Thanks for informing me of this tour!

    • Karianne 13 April, 2015 Contributor

      Hi Alli, thank you for your positive comments – it really is something I am very passionate about and I love the approach that Hidden City Tours is taking. It really is an amazing initiative!

  10. Stacey Valle 13 April, 2015 Subscriber

    great article!! You sound very passionate about it! What a wonderful experience you had. It sounds like a really amazing organization. I will check it out when I visit Barcelona! Thanks for sharing!

    • Karianne 13 April, 2015 Contributor

      Hi Stacey, it really was a wonderful experience and we highly recommend it if you visit Barcelona. It is a great way of seeing the city in a different but authentic way!

  11. Tanya Harry 13 April, 2015 Subscriber

    This post really resonated with me. I live in Los Angeles, a city which has the highest population of homeless in the US— around 30,000 people! Your article helped me to remember that they are people too, and that social connection is extremely important for all of us to retain our humanity. I’ve been to Barcelona once, and I will definitely check out this tour when I return. Great post and many thanks!

    • Karianne 13 April, 2015 Contributor

      Hi Tanya – I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I think one of the most important things about initiatives like Hidden City Tours is that they really do humanise these people and make you realise that it could happen to you. Many of them are people who have fallen on hard times and not had the support of friends and family to help them. It really was humbling meeting Ramon and hearing his stories.

  12. jess O'Neill (Meddows) 13 April, 2015 Subscriber

    This is a fantastic post. It’s really heartening to see travel stories written about some of the more difficult issues we see in travel. There isn’t a large homelessness issue where I’m from in Australia, but it was something I found incredibly confronting in Canada and in America where we lived. I’ m glad to see Barcelona putting a light on this issue!

  13. Karianne 13 April, 2015 Contributor

    Hi Jess, thanks for the positive comments! We think it is so important to gain an understanding of places we visit on all levels, even the less positive ones – as Ramon said to us, many cities are beautiful on the surface, but many have underlying problems that tourists never see. Homelessness is such a big issue in Barcelona and so many other cities around the world – we were so happy to find an initiative that was approaching the problem in such a great way.

  14. Vicky and Buddy 13 April, 2015 Subscriber

    I think what this company is doing is so great. Other cities and countries could really learn from this.

    • Karianne 14 April, 2015 Contributor

      Hi Vicky and Buddy! We’d love to find more companies like this in other countries – we are hoping to visit a similar organisation in Prague this week and know there are a couple of homeless tours in our home country too!

  15. Franca 15 April, 2015 Subscriber

    This is amazing guys and such perfect timing too, we are off to Barcelona tomorrow. Thanks again for the tips 🙂

    • Karianne 20 April, 2015 Contributor

      Hey Franca, hope you are enjoying Barcelona – such a wonderful city! Let us know if you check out Hidden City Tours!

  16. Glen 19 April, 2015 Subscriber

    What a great article! Every once in a while we read of someone, somewhere who ‘pushes the envelope’ to make our world more inclusive. This is an awesome project. There are so many positive social implication to it. I wish Lisa Grace all the best. I look forward to taking one of the tours the next time I return to Barcelona. It is interesting to know that this idea is not unique to Barcelona.

    • Karianne 20 April, 2015 Contributor

      Hi Glen, it really is such a great project – we we so happy to have found it! Lisa really is changing people’s lives in Barcelona. We definitely recommend checking them out if you get a chance!

  17. Andrej 30 May, 2015 Subscriber

    I will definitely try this tour when my family comes to visit! I live in Badalona, so I don’t really know the ins and outs of Barcelona yet. Thanks for the recommendations!

    • Karianne 6 June, 2015 Contributor

      You’re welcome Andrej – it really does give you a whole new perspective of Barcelona! I’m sure you will love the tour!

  18. Becky Padmore 9 June, 2015 Subscriber

    This a really great idea, more people should be thinking like this!

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  22. Roser Crosas 28 May, 2018 Subscriber

    last Saturday 26th may 2018, we had a unique and touching tour with Uro .. it was a pleasure and also a lesson to listen to his story and get closer to the way that homeless live in Barcelona .. we saw where Arrels works,, a pity that it was close.. maybe we found the tour a little bit short ,, we would have liked to spend some more time wandering in el Rabal… feeling its streets and neighbours ..Anyway, thank you for a diferent tour.. it was a pleasure.

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