Nearly 8,000 people sleep on London’s streets each year, and the figure is on the rise. The situation seems dire for many homeless people who, sleeping rough in one of the world’s most prosperous cities, have no access to basic facilities.
But there are people working hard to aid the homeless, to provide those without homes means to generate their own income and pull themselves out of poverty. Unseen Tours is one of these companies.
Unseen Tours began as a small social enterprise in 2010, offering alternative walking tours through London by homeless or formerly homeless guides. They dealt with around 400 customers in the first year.
One year after its conception, Unseen Tours won Virgin’s Responsible Tourism award. In 2013, it won the Observer’s Ethical award for Travel. Consistent 5* reviews on travel websites and publications have further boosted the company’s repertoire, and Unseen Tours now shows over 3,000 people around London per year.
“We don’t believe in the limitations of labels and negative stereotypes. Instead we seek to give a platform to people who unfortunately are or have lived on the streets to show the positive contributions they make like other employees and entrepreneurs working to make London the world’s capital.”
But Unseen Tours doesn’t intend to commodify the plight of the homeless. This is not, they insist, a voyeuristic operation. “Instead,” they claim, “the tours aim to show London’s historical and cultural quirks in an unusual and entertaining way and, where issues of homelessness are covered, to make a point about the state of the world we live in and highlight issues of social injustice.”
The majority of tickets are sold to private books for schools and other organisations – the rest to Londoners and foreign tourists. Bookings in the first half of 2015 more than doubled compared with the same period the previous year.
This surge in popularity coincides with a general increase in public awareness and interest in sustainable tourism, which is making this type of business more viable, profitable, and ultimately more successful.
Cris, one of the six homeless or formerly homeless tour guides comments: “There are lots of tours to choose from in London, but we aim to offer something a bit different, to give people a unique perspective that they won’t find on other tours or in guide books. That’s why Unseen Tours appeal to Londoners who have lived here all their lives, as well as people who are visiting the city for the first time.”
He continues, “When people come on my Brick Lane tour, I want them to have fun, to be entertained, to learn new things about London, but I also hope that after their tour they might see homeless people in a different light and better understand how gentrification of the area is impacting people’s lives.”
Faye Shields, co-founder of Unseen Tours, adds: “Sometimes we can be quick to judge people who are living on the streets, but homelessness can happen to anyone, for all sorts of reasons such as redundancy, the end of a relationship, or illness. Our hope is that by spending time with one of our Unseen Tour guides, people may be encouraged to rethink their perceptions of homelessness.”
Unseen Tours’ end-goal sees business being handled by the tour guides. To prepare the guides for this, Unseen Tours currently offers them a rigorous training initiative. “Our overarching vision is that, ultimately, our homeless and formerly homeless guides will run and strategically shape the enterprise themselves.”
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Photo Credit: hughhillphotography on Flickr.