It is a sunny Saturday in May and our tour guide Vivi leads us into London’s Temple Gardens, just across from the River Thames. She halts near a couple of benches and explains that the area used to house the headquarters of the Knights Templar; one of the elite fighting units during the Crusades. It seems like an ordinary tourist city walk, but then Vivi points to one of the benches across the path and says there’s another reason why her tour starts here: “That bench over there is where I used to spend the night.”
Vivi (“It’s not Vivian, but the English say Viv as they can’t seem to pronounce Vivi”) is 57 and has been homeless on and off since 1999. Her accent doesn’t give away her Norwegian roots, but after almost four decades in the UK she says she feels like a Londoner. Her story -like that of many homeless people- shows how bad luck and bad circumstances can turn a life around in an instant.
As a teenager Vivi fell in love with an Englishman while on summer holiday in Greece. She was seventeen when she settled down with him in London. The couple had two children and Vivi was delighted when she managed to get them into a good school. But while her partner was a good dad, Vivi says he did not treat her well. His controlling behaviour turned into domestic abuse, to the point where she felt she had no other option but to leave. “I didn’t know who I was anymore. I didn’t want to take the kids out of school. I knew they would be better off staying with their dad. He was a good father but a bad husband.”
Even being homeless I was never tired of London.
As Vivi was a single homeless woman, she did not get priority on the housing list. She stayed on friends’ sofas until inevitably there was nowhere left to go. A chaotic decade followed, in which Vivi experienced many areas of the capital at their best and worst. Despite the hardship, she says leaving was never an option. “I love the city. The buzz on the streets, it is such an interesting place. They say ‘tired of London, tired of life’. Even being homeless I was never tired of London.”
Life on the streets taught Vivi a great deal about ‘the other side of the capital’: the side that both tourists and residents don’t tend to see. In 2010 she got in contact with the Sockmob, a club of volunteers who regularly make their rounds across London to talk to homeless people and hand out socks and other goodies. They were looking to set up alternative city tours, led by homeless people who knew the area inside out. Before long, Vivi was taking groups of paying customers around town every weekend.
Unseen Tours now offers tours in Camden, Shoreditch, London Bridge and Covent Garden. Tickets cost £10 per person and can be bought online or on the day. Coordinator Catherine Kerr stresses that the organisation is entirely run by volunteers and that “around 85 to 95 per cent” of the ticket sales goes directly to the guides. The rest is used to pay expenses, like guides’ bus passes and phone bills. All guides get given a mobile phone so they can arrange the tours and report back to the office.
“We have a volunteer coordinator teamed up with each guide”, says Kerr. “They help them to launch and develop each new tour. Our guides run a micro-business and have to commit to their tour hours every week. When it rains and no one turns up, it can be hard. The coordinator offers support and encouragement.”
In a city like London, Unseen Tours has to compete with hundreds of other city tours: from historic walks to music tours and the famous open-top buses and boats. Without a budget for advertising it is hard to reach the masses, and the concept of ‘homeless tours’ is not yet widely known. Guides have an average of five visitors per tour, although sometimes as many as ten turn up. Most of them do three tours a week: on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with group bookings during the week.
I show them the diversity. On the streets, you find people from all walks of life.
Vivi: “When people come on the tour, they often don’t know what to expect. Some are very open and curious, others are shy to ask me things. When I start showing them the sights and telling some history, they usually relax and realise that it is not just about sadness on the streets.” The question she gets asked most is ‘What do homeless people do all day’? “I show them the diversity. On the streets, you find people from all walks of life.”
On our tour, Vivi breaks taboos and shatters stereotypes without realising it. She simply states the facts of her circumstances and mixes dark and heavy topics with a sense of humour. We stop on the footpath under Waterloo Bridge, where homeless men are tucked up in sleeping bags on either side of the road. “Right here is where I once built myself a house from wooden pallets”, she said. “I found them at the back entrance of the Savoy Hotel. I thought: I might as well get fancy ones!”
A German family visiting their daughter in London ask Vivi if she ever feels unsafe sleeping on the streets. “It can be dangerous, which is why you see some homeless people sleeping during the day”, she says. “At night, they keep walking, or they stay on the night bus for hours. Night shelters are understaffed and full of drugs. You don’t want to stay there.”
Vivi tries to find sheltered or secluded spots like gated parks or covered spaces under stairwells or bridges. “I avoid the busy areas in the city centre where drunk people come out of the pubs at night. I have seen bad things happen.” When asked what kind of things, Vivi does not shy away from telling us the inconvenient truth.
Her words sound matter-of-factly and yet hit us hard. “Friends of mine had buckets of water thrown over them while they were asleep. A few years ago, we slept with a group of people on a sheltered bit of pavement when some guys threw petrol over one of the ladies who was asleep next to us. We woke up just before they tried to set her alight.”
Noticeably quiet, our otherwise chatty group continues the walk towards Covent Garden, where Vivi points out the only cafe that allows people “who look a bit scruffy and carry their belongings in a backpack” to come in and eat. In the very square that is world-famous for its many restaurants and bars, she reveals a different reality: “Even though you are a paying customer, many places won’t let you in when you’re homeless.”
We see the queue outside the latest James Bond exhibition. Down the stairs to the back entrance in the building’s basement turns out to be another one of Vivi’s former sleeping locations. She shows how the property developers have now boarded up the open space under the stairwell to prevent rough sleepers from entering it.
Vivi currently stays in a friend’s spare room and is finally getting near the top of the council housing list. She hopes that a fixed address will allow her to get regular work again, although she is keen to continue the tours. “I have met people from all around the world: from a famous Japanese chef to classes of Danish school children. I like history and I keep learning new facts about the city. The income is not enough to live on, but I love being a guide. It has given me my life back.”
Alternative city walks around Europe
In the last five years, homeless tours have become a growing phenomenon across Europe. From Prague to Barcelona, Berlin and Basel, tourists can challenge their views of what it means to be living on the streets. Organisers say they are different from some of the ‘poverty tourism’ initiatives that have sprung up in townships and favelas around the world. Rather than showing tourists around slum areas from the comfort of an air-conditioned tour bus, homeless tours empower the poor to break down barriers and gain an income.
Despite the fact that most homeless tours are organised by non-profits, in some cities for-profit tour companies have also jumped on the bandwagon. In the Netherlands, entertainment companies like Original Tours offer fully commercial tours led by ‘a formerly homeless guide’, alongside a ‘transvestite tour’ and a ‘beer tour’. Amsterdam Underground claims to be the only non-profit homeless tour organisation in the city.
There are even individual homeless people who have now started to sell their own tours directly via the internet. Ed Daklozen Tour (‘Ed Homeless Tour’) advertises on his Dutch website: “I am Ed and I am homeless, but I continue to smile and fight for a better existence and that is why I started daklozentour.nl.”
In neighbouring Germany, Munich tours have been running for five years. Organised by the local street paper BISS, the tours are led by vendors of the magazine. They get offered permanent jobs through the project, with a salary top-up for each tour they host. The walks are aimed at locals and visitors, but are also regularly taken by staff of large banks and insurance companies based in the city. The focus here is not on tourism attractions, but exclusively on social initiatives.
“Many people here know little about the lives of poor people in their city”, says BISS tour organiser Barbara Sanowski. “We visit various social projects and explain how they work. We want to de-stigmatise poverty. Despite our limited capacity, participant numbers keep growing. In 2011 we had 1,535 participants and last year over 2,000 people took the tour.”
We hope to provide a real picture with a touch of optimism.
The latest alternative city tour is to launch in Athens this summer. It is set up by the team of Shedia, an NGO which also runs a fast-growing street paper and a street football programme for the city’s most marginalised groups. Founder Chris Alefantis took tours in Hannover, Munich and Hamburg to learn from his peers. He is involving tourism and marketing professionals and historians to provide training to the guides-to-be.
The devastating effects of the global financial crisis on Greece’s poor are visible everywhere in Athens, with unemployment, drug use and homelessness all on the rise. With over a quarter of the Greek population unemployed and more eviction notices being delivered every day, Shedia has no shortage of guides ready to get started. Alefantis is determined to show people “not only the social and darker side of Athens but also some of our hidden treasures, enriched with the personal accounts of our guides.”
For tourism to be used as a tool to change perceptions, he believes the tours need to be accessible. “We would like people to go back to their hotel room, feeling that they have learned something about our rich history as well as the current situation. We hope to provide a real picture with a touch of optimism and show that things are happening.”
[Caption: Vivi under Waterloo Bridge, showing her tour group where she used to sleep. Photo by Danielle Batist].