If you take a tour of Dublin or Drogheda, Ireland with Irish social enterprise My Streets, you are in for a unique experience. That’s because the guides trained and employed by My Streets are all people who are currently homeless or who have experienced homelessness in the past. The tours are meant to change how people think about homelessness, while also giving guides the opportunity to get back on their feet.
The number of people living in emergency accommodation in Ireland rose 145% between 2014 and 2017. During the same period, the number of homeless children rose 276%. In Ireland, more than one third of homeless people are children.
"Each of our tours is different and gives a unique perspective of Dublin"
When Ireland native Austin Campbell was working in support services for people experiencing homelessness, he saw that there was a real lack of professional opportunities that could help people get back on their feet. That’s why, in 2014, he co-founded My Streets Ireland, a social enterprise that trains and employs homeless or formerly homeless people as tour guides in the port city of Drogheda. In 2018, the program expanded to the capital Dublin, as well. After being referred to the program by social services, guides take part in a three-month training program.
In Ireland, and in other countries in Europe, there is a real issue with lack of housing. But there are also other smaller issues around education and employment that can be bridged quite easily.
People who are homeless don’t know where they will be every day so it is impossible for them to engage with normal education, or engage in normal employment. We help to bridge that gap.
If you talk with people who have experienced homelessness, they generally have a lot of stories to tell. A lot of people who are homeless also have knowledge of cities and streets that normal tour guides don’t have. That’s how we got the idea for our program. It’s fun, it’s accessible and there was nothing like it.
Staff at My Streets Ireland train future guides.We run a three-month training program. Our only condition is that participants stay sober and respectful when they are in the classroom. We start by identifying what people are interested in and help them to research that subject. Then, we do creative writing with the participants where they write what they will say to the tourists.
Then, we have a group of actors come in. They teach people how to be confident and how to stand up and tell their story. Then, the final piece of training is with professional tour guides. They help everybody in the program to map the story they have created onto the streets of Dublin. Each of our tours is different and gives a unique perspective of Dublin.
More than 12,000 tourists since 2014
The tours cost €10 per person and the guides are paid €40 an hour. The rest of the money supports the work of My Streets Ireland. While a few government agencies have started providing some funding for the training, My Streets mostly runs on proceeds from the tours and donations.
Aside from helping homeless people to get back on their feet, Campbell says My Streets Ireland also aims to change people’s views on homelessness.
The participants in our program are of all different ages and all have unique stories. Some of them spent a month living on the streets, while others spent five years or even 20. Some became homeless after losing their job or going through a break-up. Other people ended up on the streets because they were struggling with addiction or mental illness.
At the start of each tour, the guides introduce themselves and explain how they became homeless. One of our main goals is to change how people look at those experiencing homelessness.
Tourism is growing in Ireland and My Streets Ireland would like to expand to other cities around the country. For the time being, however, this social enterprise is still looking for sustainable sources of funding that would allow them to do that.