It’s always interesting to visit your own home city as a tourist. So, earlier this year, I went on an Unseen Tours guided walk around Shoreditch with Henri; a multi-lingual ex-painter and decorator, with a particular interest in street art and sculpture.
Henri’s also been homeless for a few years, living mainly on the streets in Shoreditch. He’s familiar with the architecture and social history of the area, and also with recent developments in how public and private spaces in London are managed.
I’ve walked through Bunhill Fields (an ancient burial ground) a number of times, but I had no idea it was used as a campsite for people made homeless in the 1666 Great Fire of London. I was also previously unaware of the modern concept of ‘hostile architecture‘; in short, design features to discourage ‘unwanted’ behaviour. (Hostile urban architecture in Shoreditch includes metal cages over ventilation shafts to make it more difficult for homeless people to warm themselves in cold weather).
But Unseen Tours aren’t some kind of mobile lecture on homelessness; nor are they part of a ‘poverty tourism’ agenda. Observations on hostile architecture are simply part of an engaging and wide-ranging introduction to a popular area of the capital.
A second tour around Primrose Hill (where I lived – in a bedsit – when I first moved to London in the 1990s) was led by Mike, an ex facilities manager. Mike’s tour focused on the musical heritage of Camden, and also on contrasting extremes of wealth and poverty in the borough.
I wanted to know more. So I contacted Faye Shields, co-founder of Unseen Tours.
wscf: How did Unseen Tours come about?
Faye: Many years ago, I was working in a canteen, and I was horrified by the amount of leftover food binned by the management. So I started taking it to Waterloo Station and handing it out to homeless people on my way home.
At the same time, Lidija was doing a PhD in human geography at King’s College London. She saw so many homeless people in the area she felt compelled to chat and to offer some kind of assistance, even if it was just a coffee, or a small practical item like a toothbrush or socks. Some of her friends joined in, and they got to be collectively known as the ‘sock ladies’.
I met Lidija at a conference and decided to get involved too. We used Meet-Up to connect with more people, and the whole thing just exploded. So we formalised the project, and called it ‘The Sock Mob’.
After a while, we realised that a lot of the homeless people we met were incredibly positive and gracious given their adverse circumstances. They were often ignored, or treated badly, but they also had great stories to tell about their localities. And that was the inspiration for Unseen Tours.
You’ve employed around 14 or so homeless people as guides since Unseen Tours was established. What’s happened to them since?
It’s a bit of mixture. Our primary motivation was to challenge society’s pandering to negative stereotypes of homeless people, without considering the story behind the situation. So Unseen Tours isn’t intended to get homeless individuals from point A to point B.
But Unseen Tours does aim to provide a community of support for our guides; we hope that feeling connected and cared for will assist people in taking positive steps to rebuild their lives. Some of our guides have reconnected with their families, or have used guiding as a stepping stone to other paid employment.
It’s not always a positive story. But you never know what will happen. We had one tour guide who quit Unseen Tours partly due to gambling issues. Then out of the blue, quite a while later, he got back in touch and he was married and in a good job!
You and LIdija both have day jobs. What inspires you to dedicate your spare time to the Sock Mob and Unseen Tours?
The Sock Mob has developed massively since the early days, but our overall ethos remains the same – to initiate conversations with someone who’s been isolated and marginalised, and to offer them practical support. Unseen Tours helps to highlight the fact that homeless people are simply people like other people. It’s partly just a question of luck. An unforeseen change in circumstances, or just a couple of poor decisions for whatever reason, and you can find yourself going down a path it’s hard to come back from.
We’re inspired by the prospect of changing perceptions of homelessness. And we’ve succeeded if people come away from a tour thinking: “That could have happened to me!”.
Have you noticed any difference in the numbers and situation of homeless people in London since you established Unseen Tours?
Oh my goodness, yes! There’s been such a huge increase! I’m noticing so many more people out on the streets. And there’s a lot of hidden homelessness: people in hostels, or insecure bed and breakfast accommodation, or sofa surfing. The introduction of welfare benefit caps has meant more and more people simply can’t keep up with their rent payments.
I’ve been reading Anna Minton‘s book ‘Ground Control‘, and it’s made me more aware of the increasing privatisation of public space. Has you noticed this and, if so, has it had any impact on the people you work with?
Yes, it definitely feels as if public space isn’t quite so public any more. It’s increasingly difficult to feel welcome in cities unless you’re affluent.
There are ‘no-go’ areas for homeless people in central London. And there’s been a corresponding criminalisation of rough sleeping. We’ve heard stories of homeless people being hosed down with cold water in the middle of the night in some boroughs.
And coming back to the issue of ‘hostile architecture’; features like multiple arm rests on public benches make it impossible for anyone to lie down. Homeless people, who have the most needs, are definitely at the bottom end of society in terms of resources and support.
What next for Unseen Tours?
We’re working at full capacity with the resources we have at the moment. But we’re keen to develop our financial self-sufficiency so we can have more impact. We’d like to employ someone, even if it’s only part-time initially. We’d like to expand into different cities in the UK. The sky’s the limit really!
To find out more, and to book a guided tour, check out Unseen Tours website.