When visiting a new city, there are lots of different ways to get a good grip on the style, sights, and overall spirit of where you find yourself. Guide books give your advice and options, tourism websites relay some more choice and out of the way options, but in many people’s minds the ultimate source of information on an unfamiliar city is the people who live there.
A native perspective can tell you just where to find the curious, the bizarre, and the unseen. These kinds of nuggets often get left out of more official and authorised sources. By their very nature those have a more conservative and play-it-safe strategy.
There are lots of ways to get this information these days. Individual cities have subreddit pages where people can ask for advice and suggestions before they come to visit. Locally operated tour companies hire those residing nearby to give a distinctly local perspective. But some tourists are taking this logic further still, and several charities are helping them. Some are taking the so-called “homeless tour” option, and there is a big question over whether this is another cool experience for the urban explorer, or is it in fact an example of callous exploitation by uneducated egotists.
Some of the facts about homelessness still shock people when they realise just how widespread it really is. Even in a country as seemingly prosperous and industrialised as the UK there are still 400,000 people living without a permanent address. That distinction is important, as many of these people are not “on the streets” as it were – rather they move between B&Bs, hostels, squats, and houses of friends, relatives, or charitable individuals.
Although some are more fortunate than others, many homeless do simply find shelter wherever they can. Around the world, the phenomenon emerges in urban centres large and small. People who have fallen on the hardest of hard times become intimately familiar with the highways, byways, streets, and shop doorways of their town. This intimate familiarity is what charities and entrepreneurs alike have been attempting to harness into a new kind of tourism.
What is Homeless Tourism?
These tours are lead by homeless people which reveal the city’s darker side to a collection of tourists, much in the same way that a history tour guide would lead a crowd of interested travellers around a Cathedral or through a market square.
In the capital of Croatia, Zagreb, the tour company Invisible Zagreb was set up by Mile Mrvalj and Branimir Radaković as a way to give homeless people some much needed income. Due to Zagreb’s exceptionally stringent anti-vagrancy laws, the police have the power to either arrest or otherwise forcibly divert anyone they suspect of simply loitering with intent to beg. Invisible Zagreb’s tour guides show the tourists the reality this causes, and why the railway stations, the public open spaces like Tomislav Park, and the city marketplaces, are all vitally important for homeless people. With a better understanding of homeless life, tourists can do more than simply reflect on their own relative wellbeing – they can learn something new as how to better help those in their own communities, and how cities around the world actually work.
In 2012 Czech graduate student Tereza Jurečková and two other similarly educated friends set up the charity Pragulic to better educate tourists about the struggles of homeless people by sharing their space. Speaking to the Guardian, Jurečková said “We want them to take the tour and do something… start to care.”
On tours like this, people visit the places where the homeless sleep, either out in the open or in facilities provided by charities. They visit spots regularly frequented by the homeless which give them a boost to their life, as well as the basic essentials of life, and make people really truly understand just what homelessness really means.
In London, Unseen Tours runs tours all across the East End, Camden, and many other parts of the city. Unlike Invisible Zagreb or Pragulic, the purpose of these tours is less to reveal what homelessness is, and more to provide a regular tourist experience reinfused with vigour of an on the street perspective. A charity group called the Socks Mob, who used to hand out socks and other thick winter clothes to the homeless, created Unseen Tours as a way to provide homeless people with some much needed employment.
All this is deeply fascinating, and much needed in many cases, but the question still needs to be asked – is this experience tourism, or an exploitative trap?
Pragulic’s website is full of testimonials from tourists who found that rather than leaving them depressed, they found the experience extremely uplifting and personable. One tourist described their guide as “a ball of energy and positivity” and of the experience in general they said “an unforgettable experience, which all tourist should include in their itinerary. It shows a different angle on the city and a group of people you would most probably not interact with otherwise”.
Similar testimonials adorn Invisible Zagreb’s page. “Invisible Zagreb is more than just a tour, rather an experience. A unique one, especially because of the people that are showing you their city from a different perspective.”
Given that 60% of the Unseen Tour’s revenue in London is given to the tour guides themselves, and the employment gives them a grounding for future efforts, many might see this as just another route for charity’s to take to try and get people out of poverty. Especially when visitor
After all, the struggle when you are homeless is not just about daily necessities, but also your dignity needs. One horror case of this being lost was seen in South Western England in February 2018 where a vigilante organisation went around challenging people who were “professionally begging” threatening those who were not “genuinely homeless”. If a charity or an organisation can give an income to people in genuine need, is that nor more dignified than the alternative.
On the other end of the spectrum though, those who have been in the situation only to come out the other side, and then gone on one of these tours, have seen there is a real and very serious potential problem with offering this kind of employment so freely.
Speaking to the Guardian, Ex-Heroin addict John Smallshaw who completed an employment programme with the House of St Barnabas, told this story: “I started by going on a tour in Mayfair, where the guy was so far ahead and didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. I suddenly realised: he wants to finish so he can get his fix.”
Smallshaw and other charity workers argue that while the tours can be useful, and could be valuable, they may end up causing more problems than they solve. By turning people’s homelessness into an exploitable resource, the homelessness itself becomes valuable, and people may end up stagnating. While it’s obviously not the case that people will just luxuriate in the limited income these kinds of companies can offer, they can slow things down, which is less than ideal for their ultimate goal. Speaking from his own experience of homelessness, Smallshaw said “People stay in the life they’re in because they’ve got money coming in.”
If these kinds of tours are exacerbating homelessness, they are affecting a very small slice of the population. Only 12% of the UK’s homeless population has a part time job. If a tour can inform people, and give the homeless a sense of dignity, maybe its worth it. But if you’re just getting cool stories and the guides aren’t getting the money they need to escape, what is the real value that’s being offered here?