Juan Carlos González, our tour guide, is standing at the top of Carrer d’En Robador, in the heart of Barcelona’s El Raval neighbourhood. Through a muffled microphone, he is addressing a party of fifteen, or so, which spills onto an adjacent square.
It is midway through a humid, early-October afternoon as he begins to give a brief history of the area. He explains that Carrer d’En Robador translates as “Robber’s Street” in English, and that the district is sometimes referred to as Chinatown after San Francisco’s famous enclave – despite there being no Chinese community here to speak of.
As he does so, two prostitutes lean on the bollards close by, languidly filing their nails; while a rag-and-bone man, wheeling a shopping trolley weighed down by a dilapidated computer monitor, bisects noisily across the square. Moments later, a young boy runs over from the far end of the quadrangle, where he has been kicking a football against a wall, and inquires after a pump.
“I don’t want to scare you, but not long ago, you would have been mad to come here,” continues Juan Carlos, while the boy winds through the party on his pneumatic quest. “There would have been no tourists, but it’s safer now, according to statistics…maybe because that’s because there are no tourists.”
Judging by the bemused looks on passers-by and local residents, who stop to survey us from various vantage points, you sense that international wanderlust is still something of a novelty in these parts, seemingly yet to be touched by gentrification.
And we continue walking deeper into El Raval – further away from the thronged Gothic Quarter and its imperious Cathedral, now out of view – past beaneries, bric-a-brac shops and slipshod apartment blocks. A flag is draped from one, which reads in large painted letters, “Public Health for the People”.
Fernando, Juan Carlos’ co-guide, motions down a careworn side-street towards an ill-parked white van, and informs us of the location of a methadone clinic.
“The government still turns a blind eye to places like this,” he says. “Life expectancy here is five years lower compared to the rest of Barcelona. It hasn’t changed in 200 years – the gulf between the lower and higher classes is as bad as it has always been.”
It’s a stark proclamation, but one that carries greater salience due to the speaker. Slender with friendly, engaging eyes, Fernando, who is in his early 60s, is homeless. Now in temporary accommodation, he was, until recently, sleeping rough in one of the city’s many parks.
Juan Carlos is also homeless, and has been for 18 years, having lost his job when he was 28. His story is all too common – unemployment led to subsequent displacement, depression, alcoholism and mental illness. He has no remaining contact with his family and lives in temporary accommodation, provided by Arrels, a local homeless charity.
Both are now registered with Hidden City Tours, a recently-launched social enterprise, looking to afford Barcelona’s dispossessed community employment through leading walking tours of the city.
The scheme is the brainchild of Lisa Grace, a market research consultant who has lived in the Catalonian capital for the last ten years. In the wake of being made redundant last year, she decided on a change of career, and began looking into voluntary work.
Soon after, she stumbled across Secret City Tours, a social enterprise set up in Bath, in her native UK, offering homeless walking tours, and a penny dropped.
“I felt I had spent far too many years helping the global food, drink and cosmetic giants flog more of their products," she explains, as we sit outside one of the local food markets after the tour has ended.
“When I saw what Luke [Tregido, organiser of Secret City Tours] was doing, I got in contact. I knew Barcelona would be perfect for a homeless walking tour project. It’s not a new concept, but in a city like this, where we have so much tourism – too much tourism, in fact – we need to share it and make a difference.”
According to the last street count, conducted in 2011, Barcelona’s homeless population is in the region of 3,000 – with 870 of that figure sleeping rough.
In light of Spain’s ongoing economic and socio-political woes – youth unemployment stands at a record 56.1%, while the welfare system’s degradation continues apace at the hands of government austerity – those figures are likely to be far worse in reality.
Grace is talking to me on the back of attending this year’s International Conference on Responsible Tourism, held in Barcelona; thus rendering Hidden City Tours’ unveiling particularly well-timed.
Personable and enthusiastic, she espouses with genuine conviction her belief that socially sustainable tourism could do much to offset Barcelona’s endemic homelessness.
Yet, her argument is also tempered, appreciative that tourism and charity aren’t always the most natural of bedfellows. Early into our interview, I pose the case that some, more conservative travellers may be loath to stray from the well-furrowed mainstays such as Las Ramblas and La Sagrada Família.
“I can see that it may not be for everyone,” notes Grace. “Look, there are going to be groups of tourists who might feel uncomfortable walking around El Raval, but in all honesty, they probably aren’t the demographic we are looking for.”
Grace states that the aim of Hidden City Tours is “not to demonstrate poverty and misery”, but to provide an insight and context into how and why such a considerable part of Barcelona’ s population remains marginalised.
It’s an important differentiation, given that such schemes – sometimes in spite of the best of intentions – can easily veer into the realm of condescension, or worse exploitation, in which guides are tantamount to animals in a kind of metropolitan zoo, patronised by observant, but ultimately passive visitors.
Take the likes of Real View Tours in Seattle, also inspired by the projects in Bath and London (which has its own equivalent, Unseen London). On the back of a $2000 payment, ‘customers’ can expect to spend three days living, sleeping and breathing authentic vagrancy on the streets of the Emerald City. The scheme, labelled as a “private course in applied homelessness”, has already come in for some unfavourable scrutiny.
Why? Well, you can just see self-styled kooks – with a disposable $2000 to hand – seizing their chance to live on the wrong side of the tracks, then coming back to their moneyed coteries boasting bolstered street-smart credentials: “I know what poverty’s like; I’ve been down and out, too, you know.”
If this is the result, the point of the project is well and truly lost.
Grace admits, however, that Hidden City Tours hasn’t been entirely divested of censure, particularly when it comes to how much responsibility the guides should be given.
On this topic, she is forthright, describing how Fernando and Juan Carlos were handpicked on the back of a rigorous vetting process, in order to determine whether they were mentally and physically prepared to give tours, not least deal with extensive media interest (on the maiden tour, we are joined by a camera crew from Catalonian newspaper La Vanguardia).
At this point, Grace also alludes to a third guide selected for training alongside Juan Carlos and Fernando – “a wonderful storyteller, very funny, but we discovered that he had been drinking, and we just couldn’t take him on.”
“I’ve also been asked things like, ‘How do I know the guide isn’t going to turn around and rob me?’” she explains. “Some have even inquired into whether they have undergone CRB checks. I mean, it’s ridiculous. We’re not going into any schools, and if anyone’s fearful, it’s the guide.”
And for all the talk of red tape and bureaucracy – contracts are in the process of being drawn up for guides, essentially making Juan Carlos and Fernando equal shareholders in the enterprise – Grace is palpably protective of her “partners”, particularly Juan Carlos (“he’s gone through so much”).
Later that evening, walking back to my hotel along Avignuda Diagonal, the broad avenue that cuts Barcelona in two, from west to east, something strikes me. The vestibules to the various bank branches belonging to Santander and Caixabank are nearly all lined with sleeping bodies.
It’s an irony of the cruellest kind: the disenfranchised and the poor taking refuge within the innards of the very institutions that have contributed – through reckless spending and the mis-selling of bonds – to their country’s current plight.
Hidden City Tours doesn’t posit itself as the ultimate panacea to Barcelona’s state of destitution and insolvency – it would be unrealistic to do so. But, its introduction feels somehow both fresh and apposite; and in keeping with the Big Issue’s motto of “a hand up, not a hand out”, the scheme’s progress will surely be worth monitoring in the coming months – and hopefully longer.
More information on Hidden City Tours can be found at www.hiddencitytours.com