I caught up with Alice Sparks, 3rd year history student and founder of Invisible Manchester, in the Students Union last week. After grabbing a free Domino’s pizza (something I’ve refused to pay for since being at Manchester) from the event upstairs, we found a quiet spot to chat.
Invisible Manchester, Alice explains, is a social enterprise where people who are homeless, or have been affected by homelessness, are trained to give tours of their city . The tours they give are unique as they have the opportunity to talk about themselves and their experiences of being homeless, as well as about Manchester’s history. Similar projects, I am told, are running across Europe (Berlin, Barcelona, Athens and Venice), but the first such project was founded by Zakia Moulaoui, who set up Invisible Edinburgh in 2015. It was hearing about this that inspired Alice to bring the idea to Manchester.
Despite the multitude of different charities and projects that work here, homelessness is growing in Manchester every year, with a 21% increase between 2016 and 2017 (www.homeless.org.uk). In Alice’s words, “There is a lot of charity out there that doesn’t necessarily tackle the root, simply placates and cushions the issue. Instead, it needs to change opinions of homelessness and the view that they can function within society”.
Alice aptly puts her finger on the way that people on the streets tend to seem ‘cast away’ and ‘separate’ from us, but she says that this changes when you actually engage with them. Through setting up Invisible Manchester, she has spent a lot of time talking to those affected and says: “they have a lot to say for themselves”. She says that by giving guides the opportunity to talk to the public about themselves, a platform is created for both those affected, and the public, to be vocal about homelessness. She hopes to break down the stereotypes surrounding homelessness and spread the understanding that “they are just people as well’. A study done for Invisible Edinburgh found that 97% of people who took the tours said that their opinions of homelessness had changed. Furthermore, she plans to charge for the tours, in order to allow funding for the participants, as well as giving them public speaking skills and volunteering experience that can be put on a CV.
Difficulties in the Works
Having been totally sold on the idea, I’m surprised to be told that it hasn’t actually taken off yet. Apparently, the project has already suffered setbacks, including the cancellation of a planned two-day training workshop last month. “It’s about getting people in the right place at the right time”, Alice explains, which is seemingly harder than it sounds. It turns out that a lot of the participants were too daunted by the process and that their enthusiasm was varied. One person that she spoke to said, “I’d love to do this but if I was a committed, organised person, I’d have a job already”. Others were put off by being lectured on history, or by being labelled as ‘homeless’. One begins to appreciate the complexity and pervasion of the homeless condition but, thankfully, Alice has not been discouraged. Her response has been to relax the training into an initial drop in session and casual meet-up, and to introduce a mentor scheme to make the training less intimidating. Hopefully, this is more successful.
I’m increasingly impressed by Alice’s dedication to this project and wonder how she fits in any uni work. “I’m not looking forward to my exam results tomorrow”, she admonishes and explains how she spent the revision period getting ready for the first training event, rather than revising. At least her procrastination was productive. She’s now hoping to take a step back for a couple of months, but just till she finishes the semester. Funnily, the tours haven’t even started yet, so she “feels like a fraud” when being interviewed about it. It’s not just Funraising who’ve noticed her. She’s received interest from the BBC, a tour-guiding app, the council, and Manchester University, all making demands on her time. This attention must mean she’s doing something right. This isn’t her first charity endeavour either. She spent last summer working for ICS in Rwanda where she was positioned with an arts social enterprise, “hanging out with a bunch of Rwandan artists”. She grins, “they were all just really wild, and so relaxed. It was really fun. I miss it a lot.”
Giving Back to the City
Alice tells me that, for her, this is about more than charity; it’s about giving something back to Manchester. Having lived here solely for her 3 years study at the University of Manchester, she explains her feeling of owing something to the city, not only as a personal legacy. Whilst spending time at the Booth Centre, she became aware of tension be
We talk more about the role of students in charity and how much power we have to make a difference. She feels that it’s a minority of students who do a lot. “It’s a shame that the student body doesn’t engage more and give more back to Manchester,” she says, although commends Love for the Streets, and other nights and DJ collectives for doing their part to get students involved in charitable causes.
Speaking of clubnights, I’m interested in where Alice goes on her rare nights off, and what she likes listening to. “I really like going to different venues,” she says, and mentions seeing Young Marco at The Refuge, going to Islington Mill last year, and says she LOVES The White Hotel (don’t we all). She then reveals her guilty pleasure: none other than BBC Radio 4’s ‘Desert Island Discs’. She says it’s her favourite way to discover new and varied music. When it comes to DJs, she admits she often doesn’t know who she’s listening to, but that doesn’t stop her enjoying the music. “Palms Trax is the only one I know – when he comes to Manchester I get very excited. I just say he’s my favourite DJ.”
Soon we find ourselves discussing a mutual love of Manchester, not only for its nightlife, but its connected community and creativity. It’s that community that makes it different from London, she adds, but there is always something going on. I can’t help but agree.
I ask about why she chose to study here and was surprised to find that before coming here she’d lived all over Europe. Apparently, she is continuously berated in her house for not knowing about pop culture or famous celebrities. “As people get to know me they realise my accent doesn’t quite add up and there are things I don’t get or I’ll phrase things differently. It’s quite funny to watch”. Whilst living in Finland, Ireland and Germany, she describes how she was always known as the “English girl’ and explains that coming here was about coming back to England to reconnect with her heritage. Her mum studied here too which seems to add depth to her fondness for the city and her desire to ‘give something back’.
If Alice’s story has sparked your interest (pardon the pun), Invisible Manchester is looking for people to get involved and will be holding a volunteer introduction on the 2nd of March, details of the event are on their Facebook event here or you can like their page to follow more of what they do here.