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Discover the dark side of Barcelona


Discover the dark side of Barcelona


Barcelona | Spain


Jose: I ended up on the street because of the crisis. I was a translator of books from English to Spanish… military history books. One day my publishing folks went out of business. I tried working part time teaching English and other stuff. But finally I ended up without money. I went down, basically. I had an awful job interview when I was told: you are too old to work. I was 38. From that point on I got into a depression. I felt useless. I tried to commit suicide four times. I decided I cannot keep borrowing money from my family and friends. I packed up my belongings and went on the street. I spent 33 days there until one day I asked myself: Am I gonna spend the rest of my days that way? No! Let’s find a job. I’ve got a lot of help from social services. When I had a job interview they gave me clothes, helped to look clean. One day my social helper told me she read about a British lady who is looking for the homeless. That was Lisa.

Lisa’s idea is to hire homeless people as guides in city tours of Barcelona, one of the most touristic places in Europe, with thousands of tourists passing by every day. The tours are obviously relating the history of Barcelona itself, but also the stories of those who ended up on its streets, who inhabit its hidden corners.

Jose: Lisa read my CV and told me she wants to meet. I loved her idea. It was funny because I met Lisa one Wednesday morning in November and the same day in the afternoon I got a job offer. I told Lisa and she answered:

- José, are you free on the weekends?

- Yes.

- We can start training.

The job was in a call-center; after the Christmas season they told me goodbye. I called Lisa and she said:

- You finish tomorrow, so the day after, at 2pm, we have a tour with a couple.

I joined. It was three years ago. Since then I've been with her. Since I met Lisa, I've been going up. I left the shelter. I went to a social house, I rented a room in a shared flat. I was lucky. I spent only a month on the street. I remember the first meeting with the social services. They make questions:

- Are you married?

- No.

- Do you have sons?

- No.

- Daughters?

- No.

- Do you have any studies?

- English philology, University of Barcelona.

- You what?? Do you drink?

- Only water.

Some months later my social worker told me:

- We have a problem with you: you are not into drugs, you are not drinking, you have a degree… you don’t have the profile of a homeless person.

Juan, instead, had a quite different situation, a sort of conventional homeless case.

Juan: My story is tougher. It was 100 times worse than Jose’s. But the truth is that his story is more sad. Not mine. What he went through should not happen. I had a hard time, but I was looking for troubles. I grew up in Germany. In 2000 I had some problem with the law, they caught me with 4 kg of chocolate [hashish, ed.] at the German border. They gave me 3 years and 8 months. I stayed 2 years and 2 months, then they sent me from one day to another to Barcelona. Soon money got over and I ended up on the street. One German guy told me about a center for drug-addicts. I went there. The assistant asked me what kind of drugs I used. Cocaine. Heroin. They gave me a place to stay for one year, a badge for eating in a canteen every day and 375 euro. Just because I was drug-addicted. But it’s been ten years now that I have no hard drugs. It's tough. If you have nothing to do, you automatically go for cocaine.

Juan showed us places where he used to live, where he was buying drugs, using them. Turning point for him was to find something to do. First, he got a chance to work at El Chiringhito de Dios, a social canteen, in exchange for accommodation and food. He worked there for seven years. And then he met Lisa.

Juan: One day Lisa arrived and she offered me a job. A job to a person that hasn't been working for ten years, has a problem with drugs. I told her everything. I use this, I use that. I’ve been using marijuana for twenty years. She told me to learn history. I was laughing. History?!? Well, I tried. If I get a job, I leave this situation. To say the truth, it cost me a lot to learn it. But now I do it for 3,5 years. I learned a lot. Now when somebody asks me something and I don’t know, the day after I check it out. I learned a lot about Barcelona from two perspectives: from the street point of view and from what I tell my clients. I’m very happy to work with her. I cannot live yet with what she pays me, but it’s normal. It’s not her fault. What is important is that I have my job. I feel better. I’m not anymore among the poor. It would be nice to have more people that offer jobs to those who don’t believe they have a chance. Your mind feels better. I don’t smoke anymore. When I met her I was smoking marijuana all day long. I have a German mindset: in Germany you don’t smoke while working. Work is work. I told her many times: if I don’t work...

Jose: Let me add something more about Lisa. She makes us feel confident. We are working. We are not depending on someone’s charity. When you are homeless you don’t exist. She makes us visible. She gives us a purpose.

Lisa: It’s mutual. They are saving me. My job is saving me.

Lisa is a tiny lady from England. We asked her for an interview and she came with two of her guides: Jose and Juan. For almost all interviews she kept giving voice to them, as she does in daily life. Although she has never before worked with homeless people.

Lisa: I was working in consultancy. We were doing packaging testing, usually for P&G. Really different world... But I lost my job and I had nothing to lose anymore. I was not scared to start this.

At first it was not easy to find guides. They need to be able to lead a tour, speak at least one foreign language, come to work sober. There is quite a big turnover of workers, but as Lisa says herself – this is part of the job. Right now four people are working as guides, they are creating new tours, new offers for the clients. What helps her in her work is empathy, and the warm attitude we could feel from the very first moment.

Lisa: The most important, something which makes the difference, is that I'm female. I'm softer. I have more empathy. Maybe I'm more patient. More motherly. Jose, what do you think?

Jose: I’ve never thought about that. I couldn’t imagine a Liso.

Lisa: It’s also about being open-minded. You’ve got to have the vision. You’ve got to know what you want to do and how you want it to be. The most difficult thing is the execution, the day-to-day execution of having guides you can trust. But I believe we are a team.

Jose: Yes, we are. I think the most important is caring. Lisa always cares about us.

Juan: She is brave. She has a vision. And she is honest, we are all honest. It’s because of her way of being a boss, more sensitive.

Lisa: The thing is about getting the best out of people.

We started our conversation in a cafeteria and finished going around one of the areas homeless people live in. Meanwhile, Jose and Juan were telling us about drug affairs, prostitution, fights in the streets, their very personal past. Today they can share those memories thanks to Lisa, who one day decided to act.

Lisa: For those people who want to do something good... just take action! A lot of people have ideas. Two years later they are still thinking about it. You can start up with a Facebook page, it costs nothing. You can send your message out there with hashtags and everything with zero expectations. Follow your instinct and your passion. Social entrepreneurship is the way forward. People now want to feel something. They come to Barcelona and they want to feel, they want to be connected with other people, with those who sleep on the street.


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