A year has passed, and I find myself with the enigmatic Alice Sparks, founder of Invisible-Manchester. A lot has changed since we last chatted over pizza in the SU. This time we’re in the cheerful office space of Federation house, sipping turmeric tea and Alice says she no longer feels like a fraud. And she’s not – the project has flourished beautifully, featuring on BBC News, The Guardian and Channel 5’s ‘Do the right thing’ series.
Invisible Manchester is a charity that offers city tours, with a twist. Running every Saturday, the tours are delivered by people who have been affected by homelessness, thereby supporting victims and spreading awareness.
Guides receive a flat fee of £20 per tour and getting the tours going seemed a long way off last February, I quickly gather that this hasn’t been an easy journey. Finding the right person for the job was a complex challenge, Alice explains.
“I had to be very transparent from the beginning so that the people involved were aware that there was always a potential that it wasn’t gonna work.”
Moreover, a certain type of person was required; Someone willing to talk openly about their experiences of being homeless and daring enough to volunteer for this dream.
What Alice is doing won’t work for everyone: “There’s no blanket approach to working with people as they all have a different past and a different reason for being on the streets”.
Miraculously, with the 3 months she’d given herself to make it work coming to a close, Danny made his entrance. Alice actually met Danny in January last year, at the Booth centre, but he never made it to his training session. Despite being ‘gutted’, Alice reflects that it wouldn’t have worked for either of them back then. Danny was facing the bereavement of 3 close friends and Alice herself was still grappling with her history dissertation. 9 months later, he called her, full of apologies and ready to become the face of Invisible Manchester. He was “an immediate match from day one” and Alice says she “cannot speak more highly of him”.
It’s been a “mad few months” since September, Alice explains, “I wish there was a couple more of me”. She mentions feeling overwhelmed at times: “I’m doing recruitment, I’m doing marketing, I’ll take time out of the day to talk to Danny… its success has been hard to deal with and adapt to at times. I love what I’m doing but it’s very demanding. It’s like having a baby”
But how have things changed for Danny, the star tour guide. “It’s quite bizarre realising how much it has affected him”, Alice glows, “the self-confidence is something I really notice, that’s really magical”. Meeting new people and answering questions about homelessness allows him to change people’s perceptions: “People take more notice because they’ve paid to be on this tour and that’s such a powerful environment for someone who has felt isolated and marginalised from society. To have a group of 10 people really listen to them, with such respect and care, has the power to really change their life.”
Danny’s tour gives an insight into his own experience homelessness. “Each stop is a poem or personal anecdote; places he used to sleep, the Booth Centre, the Manchester Cathedral and somewhere where he wrote a poem about PTSD. It’s about what it’s like on the streets at night, addiction, loneliness, battling the monsters in your mind. It’s so far removed from the general public’s understanding which means that when people sign up they expect to learn. The biggest thing that Danny promotes on his tour is that you should give people 5 minutes of your time to make them feel human. Having people walk by with out blinking is soul destroying.”
It’s impossible to ignore Danny’s story, or the 43 people that died on the streets of Manchester last year. As Alice points out, it’s not only dehumanising, but is so out of place in the 21st century, in one of the richest cities in the world. “Homelessness is such a complex issue, and everyone has a different story; you cant solve it by giving someone a house.”
It’s not about housing, it’s about society.
That’s where these tours can help, by giving people a real insight into homelessness. Alice hopes for this to manifest in 3 outcomes: more volunteering at shelters, more donations, and, critically, she wants people to stop turning a blind eye when they pass someone on the street.
If the tours have proven anything, it’s that the greatest gift you can give is to make someone feel human again.
Alice welcomes anyone who wants to be involved and explains that she’ll need help both recruiting and training future guides, as well as marketing the tours. “If you see a gap within what we do, something that needs changing or adding, or if you have a skill to bring, fine go ahead”. You don’t always need experience do things like this. “I still don’t know what I’m doing but it always works out”.
Working in the Federation house has apparently transformed the way Alice works. Her time is her own but she’s here 9-6 most days. This allows her to take a break now and again to read or to work on her online Master’s module ‘The Challenges in Global Poverty’ from MIT. I’m starting to doubt whether this girl is human.
“It’s definitely opened up my horizons more than I’d ever imagined”, and “made more dreams seems possible”; she mentions speaking a Ted Talk as well as her invitation to the Global Solutions summit in Berlin; “It’s the best thing ever and I’m so so happy”.
So what’s next for Invisible Manchester? “We want to do more school tours. It’s important to engage young people as the leaders of tomorrow. I feel really passionate about that.” They’re also going to be working with corporate groups to change the perceptions of people in power now. Invisible Cities now includes Edinburgh, Manchester, Glasgow, and very soon York. It also has pipelines in Liverpool, Birmingham and Oxford. “It’s still very early days but it’s exciting. I have big hopes for what it will be in 5 years”.
To top it off, they’re planning to publish Danny’s poetry, something he’s always dreamed of.
To find out more, visit Invisible Cities here