The former rough sleeper giving guided tours of homeless Dublin

Derek McGuire takes visitors on a tour of hostels and places he slept for two years

Secret Street Tours is a non-profit organisation that trains homeless people to become tour guides in Dublin. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

Dublin has a rich variety of tours – literary pub crawls, Guinness brewery tastings, Trinity College walkabouts, splashing through the Liffey dressed as a Viking – but the latest one has a bleak, contemporary theme: homelessness.

The walking tour has been prompted by the capital’s homelessness crisis; given by a formerly homeless guide, it shows tourists an inner city of gritty streets and quiet desperation that they seldom see.

“We just don’t have the properties for the number of people that are working,” Derek McGuire, our guide, tells them as he leads a Secret Street Tour through the Liberties. “Homelessness could become socially acceptable, become the norm.”

The 1.3km route includes areas where McGuire slept rough for two years after losing his home, in 2014, and passes five homeless hostels, with another six hostels nearby. McGuire’s commentary on the tour, which lasts 90 minutes and costs €10, includes homeless tips on staying safe, stashing possessions and blending into crowds.

McGuire  mixes anecdotes about shelters – the decent, the bad, the awful – with stories about the Liberties’ eras of brothels, a heroin epidemic and ‘four corners of hell’

He mixes anecdotes about shelters – the decent, the bad, the awful – with stories about the Liberties’ eras of brothels, a heroin epidemic and “four corners of hell”, a junction of four pubs notorious for fights. “Sleeping out in the city centre, that was my worst nightmare. I had to put on my Bear Grylls head,” McGuire says. “It was going to be about survival.”

The tour, which started last month, is the latest evidence of the nationwide housing crisis that has inflated rents, nudged the homeless population towards 10,000 and created a political backlash. Thousands have marched through Dublin in recent months to demand rent control and more low-cost housing, and to accuse the Government of being in the pockets of landlords, developers and “vulture funds”.

Activists have occupied vacant properties, in some cases leading to violent confrontations with private security teams sent to evict them. The eviction of a family in Co Roscommon last month triggered especially strong retaliation: about 20 masked vigilantes with baseball bats assaulted the security guards, and arsonists firebombed two Dublin branches of KBC Bank, which had sent the guards to repossess the home.

Many musicians and artists are finding Dublin unaffordable. David Kitt is one of the highest-profile figures to quit the city – and Ireland – for a cheaper life elsewhere.

A tour run by homeless people in Vienna inspired Tom Austin, a Trinity College graduate student, to bring the idea to Dublin. He and his cofounders, Pierce Dargan and Gareth Downey, obtained support from Dublin Simon Community and recruited McGuire to be the first guide. They hope the scheme will expand, with more guides covering other parts of the capital.

McGuire, who spent 25 years working in the voluntary sector, became homeless after a relationship ended and a property crash left him unable to pay his mortgage. In early 2014 he packed a bag and headed to the airport – and stayed there for three weeks, posing as a traveller and snaffling restaurant leftovers. It was safe but demoralising. “My spirit was broken,” he says.

McGuire returned to the city and slept rough, refusing to seek assistance. “I had far too much pride. I’d sooner starve than ask people for money.” He was ragged by the time Merchants Quay Ireland offered him the temporary, shared accommodation that he now calls home.

Guiding has restored McGuire’s sense of identity. “I see this as an opportunity to tell my story,” he says. But he expects homelessness to continue rising. Too few new homes are being built across Ireland, and a tech-fuelled boom is bringing hipster cafes and other signs of rent-fuelling gentrification to the Liberties. – Guardian