From living on the street, to getting paid to tell its tales

Why We Wrote This

A Dublin tour company seeks to change perceptions of the homeless and make a huge impact on the lives of a few: It's building its workforce by starting with one formerly homeless man.

Kristen Chick
Derek McGuire leads a tour in the historic Dublin neighborhood of The Liberties in January. The tour he designed is part of the Secret Street Tours initiative, offering skills and opportunity to people affected by homelessness.

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Derek McGuire was born into homelessness, but he built a career, a family, and a life. Then it all fell apart.

But today he is working, leading tours around the neighborhood he knows intimately. His employer, Secret Street Tours, has launched an effort to make a dent in a national crisis: Homelessness in Ireland shot up by 14 percent in 2018. In greater Dublin, the number of homeless families increased last year for the sixth year in a row. The increases are largely driven by a shortage of affordable housing.

“You see a lot of homeless people on the street but rarely interact and talk with them,” says Tom Austin, one of the co-founders of the tour company. This is “a way for people to engage, ask questions, to understand that ... anyone can lose a job, fall out of a relationship, fall behind on mortgage payments. Without the right support network, that can be anyone. We're here about empowering them and giving them the skills to tell their own stories.” 

Derek McGuire leads a tour around the Liberties, a working-class neighborhood of Dublin, covering centuries of history on a blustery day – from workers’ tenements to the handsome brick apartments built to improve their living conditions and a hostel for homeless men that still operates today.

That history is relevant in Dublin now, where a soaring rate of homelessness has become a national crisis. And Mr. McGuire is uniquely qualified to tell it. Born and raised in the Liberties, he’s experienced homelessness himself. His tour is part of a new initiative called Secret Street Tours, whose guides are people affected by homelessness. It aims to empower them with skills and opportunity, while also changing public perceptions of a pressing national issue.

McGuire is a co-founder and the organization’s first guide. “Two years ago, I thought all passion inside of me was completely dead. I had no motivation,” he says. “Since I started this tour, it’s completely and totally rejuvenated me. I feel like I’m living again, and I want to live again. I feel like I have a contribution to make.”

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Ireland shot up by 14 percent in 2018. In greater Dublin, the number of families entering homelessness increased last year for the sixth year in a row, according to Focus Ireland, a charity that works to end homelessness. The rise in homelessness is largely driven by a shortage of affordable housing.

In the past, many who found themselves without a home suffered from health or addiction issues, disabilities, or domestic violence. “All those problems are still there, but we’ve seen a massive amount of people who are just becoming homeless for economic reasons,” says Roughan Mac Namara, advocacy director for Focus Ireland. “Most people who are becoming homeless now, it’s because they’ve lost their accommodation in the private rent sector. Their houses are being repossessed, or they’re being evicted because they’re struggling with rent.”

Protests in Dublin are calling for rent control and more government housing. There have also been conflicts over forced evictions. Mr. Mac Namara says the government should build more social housing and tighten regulations to strengthen tenant rights.

Secret Street Tours is an effort to make a dent in the crisis. Co-founder Tom Austin came up with the idea after taking a similar tour in Vienna, and hearing what a difference it made in the life of his guide. He partnered with several co-founders and the Simon Community, another nonprofit working with the homeless. Mr. McGuire’s tour is currently the only one the group offers, but Mr. Austin is working to add another this month and hopes to recruit as many as 10 guides to give tours throughout Dublin and Ireland. He acknowledges it’s a small operation, but says he wants to make a “massive impact” on those with whom they work. The tour costs 10 euros, and after the organization’s small overhead, all proceeds go to the guides. Mr. McGuire receives a flat sum for each tour, while the rest of the money goes into a savings account for him.

Mr. McGuire developed the tour’s itinerary himself, focusing on the history of the hardscrabble neighborhood that’s home to the iconic Guinness brewery. He received training in public speaking through Secret Streets, and says he had to work on his confidence, though you wouldn’t realize it from the tour. His familiarity with the area lends authority and nuance, though he doesn’t focus on his own experiences.

“Each of our tours will be unique, developed in partnership with the guide,” says Mr. Austin. “We’re here about empowering them and giving them the skills to tell their own stories.” He also hopes to raise awareness and change perceptions. “You see a lot of homeless people on the street but rarely interact and talk with them.... It’s a way for people to engage, ask questions, to understand that ... anyone can lose a job, fall out of a relationship, fall behind on mortgage payments. Without the right support network, that can be anyone.”

For McGuire, it was a combination of such circumstances that led to him becoming homeless in 2014. It was a situation he’d worked hard to leave behind. “I was born into homelessness,” he says. “That’s probably why this particular journey resonates so much to me. I was born into one of those hostels set up for single women,” one of which was a stop on the tour. “We learned at a very young age about stigma, about carrying shame.”

But he went on to gain an education and worked for more than 20 years as an addiction counselor in a residential treatment center. He built a career, a life, and a family. When it all fell apart, “It was all the more terrifying, because I was coming into homelessness from the perspective of having walked for many, many years with people who had gone through homelessness and addiction issues,” he says. “I was completely and totally broken.”

By the time Mr. Austin approached him to become Secret Street Tours’ first guide, he says, “I had nothing to lose. I’ve felt the shame, I’ve carried the shame, I’ve carried the guilt. I carried it like I carried the haversack on my back.”

He now lives in temporary accommodation provided by a charity, and has less than two years to figure out his next steps. Secret Street Tours is helping with that, he says.

The work has given him a feeling of “I can do this. And I don’t mean just the tour, but life in general. The more I’m doing this, it’s connecting me with more people, and I have faith in my own abilities. I have a platform, and that’s what Secret Street Tours offered me. And it’s up to me about how I use it. I have a lot more ideas.”

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