Greek crisis: Athens homeless city tour shows view from the streets

INSP’s Zoe Greenfield is in Athens this week, preparing for INSP’s 2016 Global Street Paper Summit alongside the team at Greek street paper Shedia. On Saturday, she got her bearings thanks to a unique city tour, guided by one of the homeless vendors of the street paper. Athens’ Invisible Paths social business is part of a worldwide movement of ‘homeless tours’ that show a different side to global cities. In Athens, money raised from the tours goes to support the guides, finance educational projects and further develop the programme.

Touring Athens with Giannis, Zoe discovers an experience that is as much personal story as tourist activity.

Zoe and Giannis at Athens' Central Market

It’s Saturday morning and I’m flicking through my Greek phrasebook in the office of Greek’s only street paper, Shedia, when my guide Giannis arrives. He’s wearing a hoodie and leather biker jacket despite the sun. This would be a perfect summer day in Scotland, but here in Athens, it’s winter. “Are you ready for a big experience?” he asks.

I am. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a big fan of the walking tour. They’re often the first thing I Google when arriving in a new city. This summer I took walking tours in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Vancouver but I’ve never done a social tour. Sometimes called homeless tours or invisible tours, they reveal a different side to the city and are taking place in cities around the world including Ljubljana, Berlin, Paris, Taipei, London, Prague and Barcelona. I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks.

The tour reveals street art in unexpected places.

Before we leave, Giannis buys some magazines so he’s ready for work on Monday. He’s been selling Shedia since the first edition in 2013 and became one of the first guides when the social tours started.

As we descend in the lift, Giannis explains how the tours usually work. Shedia takes group bookings, starting at the office with an introduction to the street papers and their other enterprising projects. When he tells me that questions from the group make the tour, I’m feeling the pressure. My tour is different: it’s just the two of us. He tells me I can ask him anything, the next two hours are about social projects and struggles in Athens but they’re also about his life.

Without giving too much away, because I strongly encourage everyone to take a tour if you are in Athens (you would be privileged to have Giannis as your guide) this was an intensely personal and moving tour which felt more like wandering the backstreets of Athens with an old friend. I didn’t struggle to come up with questions and he answered them all. We chatted about everything from access to public toilets to women being trafficked into the sex trade, attitudes to refugees and new drugs like shisha.

Athens converted this former hotel into a hostel.

Early in the tour, we stop at a hotel which the Municipality of Athens has converted into a hostel. It’s full. Then an empty courthouse, once home to 1000 refugees and drugs addicts but now one of many boarded up buildings which litter the city. We talk about this issue and similarities with other countries; the shame on society that people are sleeping out on the streets while vacant buildings are surrounded by menacing rings of barbed wire.

This empty courthouse, once home to 1000 refugees and drug addicts is now boarded up.

Giannis, who first became homeless at 14, linked the buildings and alleyways in front of us to milestones in his own life. He points out the exact spot where he was arrested after stealing from a stranger for the first time, setting in motion a series of events which ultimately led Giannis to a life free from drugs and to Shedia. We stop at the National Theatre of Greece, with its grand façade and high-tech stage, but we don’t go into the details because we’re here to talk about the connection between art and rehabilitation. Giannis has a passion for theatre having taken to the stage for the first time during the final year of his rehabilitation programme.

National Theatre of Greece

We stop on a corner and as I lift my phone Giannis tells me not to take a photo. Looming large at the head of the street is the Greek stock exchange but closer to us, past a small group of portable toilets (there are no public toilets in Athens) is a soup kitchen which feeds 2,500 people each day. I’m staggered but Giannis tells me this is nothing. The scale of the problem is much bigger, as I later discover, 30% of the population here live below the poverty line and 17% are unable to meet their daily food needs.

These tours give visitors an insight into a side of the city which would usually remain hidden: hostels, rehabilitation facilities, drug use and poverty. But it’s for locals too, Giannis tells, “so they will not be afraid to walk the streets and neighbourhoods of their own city”.

You can book your own ‘invisible’ tour of Athens here.