06/01/2018 08:01 GMT | Updated 08/01/2018 15:40 GMT

Invisible Edinburgh: Life-Changing Scheme Helps Homeless People Find Their Feet As Tour Guides

'It gives homeless folks a real chance they wouldn’t normally get.'

Sick of seeing people struggling on the streets and not being able to do much about it, Zakia Moulaoui launched Invisible Edinburgh, which trains homeless people to become tour guides in the city.

The idea came about after Zakia worked briefly in Athens, Greece, and stumbled across a similar scheme run by the country’s version of The Big Issue.

With a background in working with homeless people and refugees, the 30-year-old knew she had to do something more to help the situation back at home - so she devoted her spare time to setting up an initiative in Edinburgh.

Zakia, who also works for the Social Enterprise Academy, told HuffPost UK: “There’s a very bad stigma around homelessness. I wanted to start something because, well, people are people - and sometimes they just have bad luck.”

Invisible Edinburgh
Zakia (pictured second from left) and one of the Invisible Edinburgh guides Sonny (third from left).

Invisible Edinburgh works with other organisations to reach out to homeless people, rather than approaching them directly on the streets. Charities and venues where these people might go to get food, shelter or support will inform them of the tour guide training scheme, which is run in collaboration with Crisis.

It’s a pretty big commitment. Training takes place one day a week over a period of five weeks. There, people will be trained in skills like public speaking, first aid, managing large groups and building self-confidence. They’re also encouraged to come up with a unique theme for their tour. One guide’s theme, for example, is ‘powerful women of Edinburgh’.

One of the guides, Biffy Mackay, told HuffPost UK: “Sometimes I get a wee bit emotional when I tell parts of my personal story, but only because I’m glad that it’s all in the past for me now.”

According to charity Shelter, on average a family is just three paycheques away from being made homeless, which confirms just how fragile the balance of life can be.

Zakia said she’s lucky that she has friends and family if she needs support, however realises it’s not the same for everyone.

“I’ve worked since the age of 17. I’ve had moments of struggling, but all in all I’ve been quite stable,” she explained.

“I have amazing friends and family that support me when shit hits the fan. But I understand that anything can happen and not everyone has that support.”

Invisible Edinburgh has trained eight people in total and currently works with three regular tour guides. Zakia also hopes to launch Invisible Manchester this year.

The tours are different from others in the city as they cover Edinburgh’s history alongside local projects, events and workshops. Neither do they shy away from the topic of homelessness. “It’s more like a walk with a friend than a walking tour,” Zakia explained.

The latest statistics show 3,218 households were assessed as homeless after applying to the City of Edinburgh Council in the year to 31 March 2017. But a spokesperson for Shelter Scotland told HuffPost UK this doesn’t account for people who hadn’t sought help from the council - so it’s likely to be more. 

The opportunity for stability and networking can be life-changing for those involved. One of the guides recently got the keys to her own flat. “She had an up-and-down year,” Zakia said. “But she finally got a council flat and I’m really proud that she did it on her own.”

The same guide has also spoken on a panel about education for girls, alongside academics and industry leaders, which Zakia said was a very emotional moment.

“I know how shy she is and how difficult it is for her to speak in public,” she explained. “It was amazing and empowering to see her do it.”

Invisible Edinburgh
One of the tours in action.

The walking tours cost £10 (per person) and this money goes towards paying the tour guides and any profit left over goes towards Street Barber - another project run by Zakia which provides haircuts for homeless people on the street.

Some of the guides opt to do the tours on a voluntary basis so as not to conflict with any benefits they may be receiving. Zakia explained: “We ask if they’re on benefits because if they make £100 in a month from being a guide, it’s not worth the hassle [as it would affect their benefits claim], so they just do it on a volunteer basis.”

In cases like this, Zakia will reinvest that money into further training and help for the guide - for example, she’ll pay for them to attend a course on managing money or budgeting.

There’s no denying just how big an impact Zakia’s efforts have had on these people. One of the guides, Sonny Murray (pictured at the top of this article), said: “Being a guide has really boosted my self-confidence and helped me to enjoy public speaking, which I’d love to do more of.

“It gives homeless folks a real chance they wouldn’t normally get. The tours show tourists and locals alike what help is available for the most vulnerable people in the city.”

Zakia is currently trying to raise £1,000 to continue her work and expand Invisible Cities. To support her mission, visit her JustGiving page here.

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