Vienna city tours - guided by homeless people

In Vienna, the social business Shades Tours offers guided city tours of a different kind. As the name suggests, the tours take visitors on a trip to Vienna’s darker side, illustrating the different shades of homeless life in the Austrian capital. Beyond Vienna’s glimmering palaces, people who have been and partly still are affected by homelessness offer a glimpse into the lives of homeless people. Depending on the guide, tours are more or less influenced by their own stories.

In March 2017, Mondial Congress & Events tested Shades Tours as part of a team incentive. First, we met our guides, who didn’t seem to conform at all to the stereotypical image of homeless people inevitably stuck in our heads. Armed with plenty of eloquence and humor, they led us through Vienna’s nooks and crannies and impressed us with their knowledge of facts and figures about homeless life. What is homelessness? How many homeless people are there? And how many homeless shelters have been set up? Together, we then discussed which kinds of homelessness we know today, which are the main reasons for homelessness and how it is possible to escape it again. We were astonished to find out that a high percentage of what we know as homelessness indeed remains unseen. In theory, Vienna provides enough emergency shelters for everyone, at least in winter, so no-one has to sleep outdoors. Furthermore, the term homelessness also includes people who find temporary lodgings in assisted accommodation or who enter relationships simply to obtain housing – a less-than-ideal solution that especially women fall back on.

We meet up in the middle of Vienna’s most touristy area. Rather than hearing historical facts about nearby landmarks like St. Stephen’s Cathedral or Hofburg Imperial Palace however, we enter a parallel world that exists back to back with Vienna’s polished image, but that we hadn’t ever really noticed before. For example, most of us didn’t know that across the street from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, where we often organise congresses, a charitable café offers employment opportunities for the homeless. Neither did we notice that free lunch is given out daily at the Franciscan Church – a popular selfie spot for tourists visiting Vienna. We give the neat city palaces the cold shoulder and instead stop in front of council houses, institutions which helped ease a great deal of hardship in the past century by providing affordable, state-supported housing for people in need. However, homeless people are often denied access to council flats due to the fact that they require evidence of uninterrupted prior registration at the same address for at least two years. For the homeless, this requirement borders on mockery. On our visit, we learn which strategies have been developed to close such holes in the social system and also how to open a bank account, receive medical treatment and pick up your post when you’re homeless.

As sobering as many of the stories we hear may be, the good news is that 90% of persons afflicted by homelessness in Vienna eventually find a new home. Projects like Shades Tours make a significant contribution towards this success. The tours create employment for those affected while at the same time informing participants about Vienna’s social security system, without reverting to voyeurism. After the tour we know that homelessness can hit anyone and that the only way to fight it is by sticking together as a society.

Shades Tours are also available in English. Collaborations with organisations in other European capitals are being planned.