Vienna's homeless conduct tours
They hope to end the stigma of homeless people by showing what life on the streets is like
VIENNA: On a wintry afternoon, tourists huddle around their guide outside Vienna's central train station.
But instead of exploring glitzy palaces, tour guide Barbara will take them around night shelters and soup kitchens as part of a new initiative aimed at helping homeless people like herself get back on their feet.
Vienna is ranked as one of the world's most liveable cities with an excellent social security system, but thousands of people nonetheless fall through the cracks.
Official data shows around 4,300 end up on the street every year, but the actual number is thought to be much higher.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, Barbara, a former gallery owner who is in her 40s, first lost her livelihood and then her flat while undergoing chemotherapy.
After several months sleeping rough, she managed to get a bed in a homeless shelter.
"I'm happy because my hair is long again and I'm totally healthy," she told her tour group.
"I'm confident that I'll soon have my own place again, not least because of this," she added, referring to her new job at Shades Tours.
Launched last year, the social start-up is part of a growing European trend that sees the needy hired as city guides as a way to help them reintegrate.
While they show tourists in Paris around famous landmarks, the Vienna concept goes a step further to peel off the stigma attached to homelessness.
"I wanted (the tours) to be more educational," explained Shades Tours' creator Perrine Schober, a 33-year-old tourism management graduate.
"We (see) homelessness on a daily basis but we have no idea what it is actually about, so I guess that's the reason people look away instead of trying to help," the French-Austrian told AFP.
Shades Tours was initially aimed at Austrians, drawing hundreds of school children, social workers and companies last year, with a selection of tours costing 15 euros (S$22.70) that range from a couple of hours to all day.
"Our guides are in a unique position to explain Vienna's complex social system and its challenges. They provide children with an emotional lesson they can't get in a classroom," said Ms Schober.
The organisation now employs three full-time guides, two of whom have already been able to move from their shelter into private housing.
Boosted by the success, Ms Schober recently broadened the offering to include English-language tours for international tourists.
Barbara, who declined to give her surname, switches effortlessly from German to English and French as she explains why the central station is a "hot spot" for the homeless.
"It's warm, it's open 24 hours a day and you can be anonymous here," she tells the visitors after they enter the huge glass structure.
Multilingual social workers, recognisable by their red jackets, walk around the station handing out information to homeless people on where to get help.
"What's the worst part about being homeless?" asked one of the tour group.
The isolation, Barbara replied. "Nobody from my former life knows where I am now and I have no family," she said.
Vienna, a city of 1.7 million, has a solid network of public institutions and not-for-profit organisations helping those in need.
In winter, around 700 beds are added to the 300 available all year round to prevent people from freezing to death, particularly in the current cold snap gripping Europe.
But it is not enough to meet the high demand, made worse because Vienna also draws the homeless from other European cities like Budapest, Hungary, where conditions are even tougher.
For two euros a day, you can sleep, eat, shower, and use the Internet at the men-only VinziPort shelter, the last leg of Barbara's tour.
At the end, participants thank Barbara for sharing her story, including Bulgarian Steliana Kokonova, 29.
"One major thing that will stay with me is that we now have more information about how to direct homeless people towards useful institutions," she said. - AFP