A chance meeting between an ex-homeless poet and a University of Manchester student sparked a revolutionary social mission to guide rough sleepers – and parts of the city – out of the shadows and into new lights.
A bus screeches to a halt before the Cenotaph in St Peter’s Square as Danny saunters into the middle of a city-centre thoroughfare. There aren’t many tour guides who’ll literally stop traffic to usher their followers across. From the very start of the tour, its clear Danny’s certainly not invisible.
With a hoarse voice – from a poetry gig the night before – Danny announces the itinerary for his Invisible (Manchester) tour like a natural showman. It’s hard to imagine that the guide was once an ex-serviceman suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, sleeping rough and unable to find a way out. These days, he’s a poet, author and local celebrity who has sung opera in Manchester Cathedral and taken tea with the Lord Mayor.
“Five years ago you couldn’t get two words out of me,” laughs Danny. “If someone told me I’d be performing my own poems at Manchester International Festival, I’d have said, give me a pint of what you’re on.”
Life took a plot twist when Danny met Alice Sparks.
A bright new spark
Alice is someone who brims with passion, pride and energy. “I just want to do everything,” she says. It’s precisely this sense of purpose that motivated her to tackle the dramatic mundanity of seeing homelessness every single day on her cycle to work. “I don’t understand why I wouldn’t do anything about it”, she asserts.
She established Invisible (Manchester), the second outpost of Invisible Cities, which had launched in Edinburgh in 2016. The initiative aims to bring those who have experienced homelessness into the spotlight, to make them visible by giving them a platform to tell their story on their turf, training them to lead walking tours of the city. It builds skills and creates confidence in the tour guides, and changes attitudes towards homelessness among those on the tour.
All the proceeds go straight back into supporting homeless people across the city and beyond. “It benefits everyone. Walking in someone’s shoes through their city is a really intimate and transformative experience,” Alice says. “And for the tour guides, to go from a position where your confidence is on the floor, to leading a group of people around the streets, telling them your story, is so incredibly empowering.”
For the tour guides, to go from a position where your confidence is on the floor, to leading a group of people around the streets…is so incredibly empowering.
A meeting of minds
Getting Invisible (Manchester) up and running wasn’t easy. When Alice graduated with a history degree from the University in 2018, she had already been Head of Invisible (Manchester) for over a year and was struggling to find anyone willing to be a tour guide. “As an outsider, it took a long time for people to trust me,” she admits.
Alice was close to giving up just as she met Danny, a working-class, ex-homeless, ex-serviceman Scouser. His missing teeth, deep wrinkles and faded tattoos tell tales of a very different life to the one Alice has lived. “I’m very lucky – things have been very simple for me,” she says.
The unlikely pair forged a connection that helped to transform Invisible (Manchester) into a successful venture, while building a fond friendship too. “She’s my adopted daughter now. She’s also my boss,” Danny laughs. “And your PA,” Alice jokes. “He’s a busy man now.”
Reward for enterprise
Alice recently won the Alliance Manchester Business School Venture Further start-up competition. The annual prize gives enterprising students, researchers and recent alumni across the University the chance to secure up to £12,000 of investment for start-up businesses.
The first-place prize has given her both the validation and funding she needs to push on. “I always have people telling me that I’m doing an amazing job, but no-one’s willing to put money into it because it’s a risk,” says Alice. “Winning this award – having people invest and believe we can be a viable business – was amazing.”
Keen to scale up Invisible (Manchester) through an ongoing relationship with the University, Alice says: “There are endless opportunities, but now we need the manpower to make it happen. We’re currently recruiting a team of student volunteers and we’re working with the University on developing an internship to support our work.”
The future is bright
The last leg of Danny’s tour delves below ground, through three “very dingy tunnels,” as he calls them. Danny slept here on many occasions – as do hundreds of people every year.
The group emerges from the darkness towards the marble facades of glamorous King Street as the tour comes to a close.
With thoughts turning towards the future, Alice enthuses: “This is just the beginning. The more work I do, the more amazing people I meet, and the more inspired I get. It just makes me want to do more.”
As for Danny? With another successful tour in the bag and another important meeting to get to, he says his goodbyes with hugs. As he strides off, he turns around, shakes a small set of metal between his fingers and exclaims: “Keys! What every homeless person dreams of.”
Find out how to book an Invisible (Manchester) tour.