The City is a Home: Building social infrastructure with rough sleepers

| Azad Sharma

Throughout the past three years I’ve been working in a variety of health and social care settings as a consultant and community storyteller. I’ve met a lot of voluntary and public sector organisations working with people experiencing homelessness in the UK and felt inspired by their work. 

Recently, Sadiq Khan called for an increase in social housing in London to help prevent the 18% ‘record rise’ in homelessness in the UK’s capital. Social housing is certainly a huge part of any solution that seeks to ensure that homelessness is an experience that is temporary. Other solutions come through social enterprise and one example is Invisible Cities (est. 2016) who have trained, employed, and empowered people experiencing homelessness to give tours of cities to members of the public and tourists. 

Invisible Cities began in Edinburgh and now operate in Glasgow, Manchester, and York as well. Their unique 3 step training programme that captures how they take a person isolated on the streets and help them gain the confidence to take a group of tourists around their city which not only highlights monuments and famous sights but also adds the personal nuance of showing a group of strangers what in the city is important to them. 

Invisible Cities are also working in the collaborative spirit, teaming up with street barbers in Edinburgh to ensure that men experiencing homelessness have access to haircuts and toiletries as well as providing pampering days for women.  

What is inspiring is the way that Invisible Cities encourage us to change our perspective of a city. The city, here, functions – as it should – as a source of employment, community, and support. Those who have to endure sleeping rough are forced to make the streets their home, but through initiatives like Invisible Cities, that experience of the city as a home can be turned into something positive, through training and employment, all whilst aiding the pursuit of secure housing. 

In the context of what Aditya Chakrabortty has recently called ‘an infrastructure breakdown’ in the UK, through his astute journalism that linked the blackout earlier this Summer with the closure of many spaces of public gathering such as pubs and libraries, Invisible Cities are changing our relationship with the infrastructure of the city. As much as they make us aware of the cost of this breakdown of infrastructure (the experience of homelessness guides you through the city), they also open the door to progress and to a future where that journey (the tour) builds its own infrastructure through social enterprise, collaboration, and compassion.

Don’t forget to follow Invisible Cities on Twitter. Do you want to invite them to your city? Contact them here

Photos and Videos by Invisible Cities.

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