“I thought it was something we could do in Scotland,” says Moulaoui.
From there she approached charities and social enterprises in Edinburgh, mobilizing people. The first tour started in the summer of 2016. Now, Invisible Cities is targeting three other cities: Cardiff, Liverpool and Norwich.
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“By next summer, we should be in seven cities.”
Recruited through city organizations – inns, soup kitchens or even the Big Issue – participants receive training, with no obligation to eventually become a guide.
“A lot of people will use it to gain confidence, learn new skills, make new friends. The training is open to anyone, regardless of their background,” says Moulaoui.
Those who become guides offer their own tours. They have a choice of route and content, including how much of their personal story to include.
Some guides are very historical and stick to the facts. A guide, a former construction worker, will share the secrets of Edinburgh’s buildings. Others will talk about the social composition of a city.
“All of our circuits are a mix of history, which you would have on any other circuit and you would say that it doesn’t matter who tells you about it,” adds Moulaoui. “In Edinburgh you could learn about the Royal Mile, Greyfriar, all of that. But they also have local knowledge and personal stories. People put a part of who they are into their tours.
“We want the visits to be a positive experience because homelessness is such a dark and dismal issue. Although we talk about the reality of homelessness, it is also positive. We highlight where people can seek support, community spirit in certain areas or what they want to happen.
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Big Issue Invest, the investment arm of Big Issue, has played an important role in helping Invisible Cities do what it does, providing investment as well as advice and support.
Touring makes a huge difference, says Moulaoui. For those taking part in the training, it is important to build confidence – people who may not even see work as an option are getting started.
It also helps guides to belong in their cities. “Our cities belong to all of us, but when you’ve had a negative experience in the city, you might feel like you don’t belong there,” she adds.
Leading a walking tour turns the tables – you become a representative of the city, sharing your own story. This, in turn, helps to change people’s perception of homelessness and see people who have been through it as whole persons.
“The message we want to convey when we talk about homelessness is that people are people in all circumstances,” says Moulaoui.
“No two people are the same, and we should think of them as such and not just think that every homeless person is in some way. We want the tours to break the stigma of homelessness by giving the priority to people.