H omeless people as tour guides? In a Hitchhikers-Guide-to-the-Galaxy way of looking at the world, it makes sense. Who better to guide one through the streets?
Whether it works out in reality will be seen on the May Bank holiday weekend when the My Streets Drogheda project begins and 10 homeless, or recently resettled, people begin to work as tour guides in the town.
“I had nowhere to go and Drogheda Homeless Aid took me in,” says Alan Maguire, who spent a few months at the shelter earlier this year when his relationship broke up. “I owe them so much. Now I want to give something back.”
The 34-year-old and nine others have had regular training sessions over the past eight months, learning how to communicate what’s best about the town to tourists during a one-hour walking tour.
“I love Drogheda,” says Maguire. “I want to be able to show people how much great stuff is here; not just the history, I know a load of deadly little stories.”
As a child Maguire used to hang with his twin brother from the beams of the viaduct over the Boyne while trains shook the girders overhead. Eighty years before, his grandfather had jumped from the same viaduct to rescue a colleague. “He burnt his hands so badly sliding down the steel ropes that it ended a 20-year career working on the bridge.”
Maguire is excited about the potential of the project. “If you had seen me just months ago, I was a totally different person. I was in a bad place. Now, I’m ready to start over.”
The idea was instigated by Alan Costello of Drogheda Civic Trust and inspired by similar projects in Canterbury, Prague, London, Barcelona and Berlin where social enterprises have been developed to reintegrate former homeless people back into society, while also generating employment.
“Changing people’s perceptions of homelessness is key,” says project coordinator Austin Campbell. “Having worked with homeless people for the past couple of years I’ve found a huge lack of understanding in the general public.
“Obviously, they’ve never experienced it so they couldn’t possibly understand. The main surprise is how easily it could happen to any of us. Some of the guys may have addiction issues, but the majority don’t.
“We are all the same – three pay cheques away from being homeless. If you don’t have a good relationship with your family, it’s very easy to end up on the streets.”
Terry McGuinness from Dublin had two jobs when he became homeless. “You just never know people’s background,” he says. “I had my own gym in Dublin, but there wasn’t enough turnover to earn a wage so I worked as a courier as well.”
He was also training people in martial arts at the weekend. “It was stress, basically. I had a mental breakdown, and a social worker referred me to Drogheda Homeless Aid. I was in the shelter for nine months. Since then the whole situation has turned around. Luckily, the business managed to keep going somehow.”
McGuinness is a third degree black belt in tae kwon-do, and a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. “Martial arts has been my life. Cage fighting is my game. I still do a bit of coaching in Dublin, but when I heard about the My Streets project I thought it was fantastic; a way of showing people that we’re just ordinary guys, a way to get over the stereotyping.
“It’s my way of paying back the generosity of the people of Drogheda, and especially all the crew at the Homeless Aid,” he says. “I was in a very negative place after the breakdown, but Drogheda gave me a sense of well-being – that’s what I hope to share, the feeling that this town gives me.”
The My Streets Drogheda tour will cost €5 and with a maximum of eight people, each should generate €40. The guides receive half the fee and the rest covers the operational costs. So guides could get €20 for an hour’s work. The whole project has been shaped and developed by the men themselves.
“They designed the uniforms and the promotional material,” says Campbell. “They decide where to go and what to include in their tours, based on their own personal interests and back stories. We only facilitate them.
“We got development funding from State Street and Louth Meath Education and Training Board, but we expect the programme will be self-sufficient once the tours begin. A lot of these men have been out of education for a long time and you can see their confidence grow: at one stage four of them were studying for their Leaving Cert. Some have even gained employment since the programme began. Ideally this will be a pilot project that will be rolled out nationally.”
Cyril Carter, an elegantly dressed 68-year-old with a briefcase, is hoping the tours will help to attract more funds to the homeless shelter.
“Funding has been drastically cut, so hopefully these tours might help get them some more attention,” he says.
Carter ended up relying on Drogheda Homeless Aid when his two businesses failed in 2009 and a relationship broke up. “I had to leave the house I was living in, which could happen to any one of us, very simply. The HSE in Dublin directed me up here and I spent three months in the Homeless Aid.”
For Campbell the main objective is to give these men a voice. “The most under-represented part of the community is our homeless population,” he says. “When homelessness is portrayed, it’s negative stereotypes of people lying in doorways, which actually accounts for only a tiny minority.
“The aim of the programme is to help the lads to educate the public about their lives, to foster empathy. Rather than giving money to the problem, or building more hostels, informing public opinion may be the most realistic way of remedying the problem.”
Either way, visitors to Drogheda stand to gain a unique insight into a town that is often overlooked.
Each of the men has his own favourite spot: for Martin Reilly it is the travellers’ camps he used to visit as a child when his family were still on the road, for Carter it’s relics of the old Norman town, like the town walls.
“There’s only about 60ft or 80ft left of them in St Mary’s Graveyard. You wouldn’t even notice them unless it was pointed out to you,” he says.
While the guides were initially all male, the first woman has just joined them and it’s hoped that more will come through Drogheda Women’s Refuge once their safety from those who have abused them can be assured. See mystreetsdrogheda.com