Ever since I started working at the Impact Hub in Vienna, I have been meeting people with incredible ideas and businesses.
One such person is Perrine Schober of SHADES TOURS. For those of you that have not met Perrine, or heard of SHADES TOURS, here is a bit of background. SHADES TOURS offers activities and tours that discuss homelessness in Vienna. I attended the first tour given in English. The tour was a highly interactive experience led by one of Vienna’s homeless (or houseless). The English tour took us to three locations in the fourth and tenth districts of Vienna, the Hauptbahnhof, outside Caritas Peace Haven, and a local park.
A group of us from Impact Hub were on the tour that beautiful, sunny day. Initially, we met in front of the train station but it was warm and sunny, so we moved through the train station to the other side, where it was shady. While we walked through the train station, I saw a homeless man with all of his possessions attached to a bike, it was a sharp contrast to the beautiful sunny day outside and the camaraderie of the tour guests. As we stood in the shadow of the train station our guide asked us questions about how people became homeless and what homelessness meant. The tour group and our guide discussed why the train station is a gathering place for the city’s homeless population and the stories that unfold there daily.
At the train station we were also introduced to the concept of the Street Management Teams. These teams comprise of dedicated social workers, who help those at risk access the social services available to them. Since the tour, I have seen these red jacketed social workers throughout the city. It seems that not only homelessness can appear invisible, if one does not know what to look for. Coming from Canada, the idea that there are social workers going out into the field to help people access social services is a most novel concept. For us, those at risk need to seek aid first, in order to receive assistance.
The second location was the Caritas Peace Haven. For a Canadian, this is, again, a very novel concept. We have homeless shelters that sometimes provide accommodations at night, and most especially during our harsh winters, but the idea that there was a day centre where people could access food, internet, showers, and laundry was something new. For us, it is rare to find one place that offers all of these amenities under one roof. Our guide explained to us that there were different types of day centres for women and children in the city as well, so that those especially vulnerable, would be less wary of accessing these safe havens.
The third location was a local park. Our guide showed us pictures of the parks during the refugee influx and what they looked like during the height of the crisis. We sat on benches in the shade and discussed the idea of a sense of security and peace that we have in our daily lives but that the homeless lack entirely. Our guide then switched gears slightly to share some stories about some of the individuals that he knew within the city. The stories were eye-opening and disheartening. From stories about theft and the acquisition of new addictions, to the role of mental illnesses and the length of time that homelessness persists for some individuals. Then our guide told us the uplifting success stories of those same individuals. Some are no longer homeless. By accessing the support of social workers and mental health professionals, they slowly built the skills necessary to return to a more normal life.
I walked away from the tour with three things on my mind on that beautiful, sunny day. The first was a new understanding of the complexity of homelessness. Many of us look over the person who sleeping in the park or sitting asking for change on the steps. Rarely do we think about the depths of their anxiety over the safety of themselves and their belongings.
I also came away with the knowledge that there are a large number of social institutions working together to create and maintain a social system for the homeless within Vienna. There is a large network of well funded charities and governmental social services that work in concert to address this issue. While this does not solve the deep seated problems of homelessness, it certainly makes a difference to the individual lives they touch.
The third take away was the difference between homelessness and houselessness. Houselessness being that someone has an address but for various reasons, like domestic violence, he or she is unable to access his or her residence. This is not a concept that we have in Canada, and so, while it is mundane for Austrians to make this distinction based on a variety of factors affecting someone’s status it is not so for a Canadian.
I caught up with Perrine after the tour and was able to ask her a few questions about Shades Tours and her guides.
What is the most pressing issue with homelessness?
“In my opinion, the most dangerous thing about homelessness is time. The longer a person is homeless, the more difficult is becomes for the person to change their status quo. It takes unbelievable strength, motivation, and determination to get out of being homeless when you battle a lack of belief, hope, motivation, strength, and self esteem coupled with unbearable shame and the constant struggle to organize the most basic of needs.”
What is the one thing that can make a difference in the lives of the homeless?
“Even with all of our social services assisting with the basic needs of the homeless there is one thing that makes a difference to a person who is homeless: employment. Employment is often the difference between homelessness and a fully integrated life. We all need tasks and work in order to feel useful, and to have a reason to wake up and shower everyday. This is not something that the social system can provide, or even is supposed to provide. I do not think that employment is a panacea to homelessness, but when they are ready and back on their feet, they should be able to find employment within the labour market.”
What are you proud of with Shades Tours?
“I am super proud of the Shades Tours guides. They may be fighting the toughest fight of their lives and I am glad that SHADES TOURS is one employment outlet that can provide them with the strength and motivation that they need.”
If you haven’t been on a SHADES TOUR yet, I encourage you to attend one. Austrians have created an amazing social system, and it is important to see it in action. For the rest of us, we need to take these ideas elsewhere in the world and replicate them. Check out the Shades Tours website for information on tours and activities in English and German.