Hazel leading a tour in Brixton. (Photo: Unseen Tours)
Hazel didn’t become homeless until she was in her 50s, right after her marriage ended. She spent some time living on the streets. She would often walk all night long, just staring up at the stars.
When she was lucky, she was able to sleep on a friend’s sofa.
One day she got to know the folks involved in the “Sock Mob,” a group of people who would give socks to homeless people on the streets of London. One of the volunteers asked Hazel if she would lead a guided tour of London Bridge since she knew the streets so well. That gig, back in 2010, led Hazel to Unseen Tours, a nonprofit organization that offers tours of London from homeless or formerly homeless guides, and she has been leading tourists around town ever since.
“Unseen Tours came along, and things fell into place,” Hazel (the tour company prefers that the press only use the guides’ first names) says. “It’s given me confidence, it’s made me feel part of a group and it’s good to be helping with something that is small but growing.”
Unseen Tours evolved out of the Sock Mob in 2010. It began providing paid work as tour guides to vulnerably housed individuals and now shows more than 3,000 people around London a year. The outfit has enjoyed a surge in interest from school groups, tourists and Londoners, with bookings in the first half of 2015 up by more than 100% compared with the same period last year.
The business model is that 60 percent of ticket revenues is paid directly to the guides. All profits are reinvested back into the organization.
“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 a redundancy, the end of a relationship, or illness,” says Faye Shields, co-founder of Unseen Tours. “Our hope is that by spending time with one of our Unseen Tour guides, people may be encouraged to rethink their perceptions of homelessness.”
Mike, who leads rock n’ roll tours of Camden, is an example of how easily homelessness can happen to us all, even if we have a successful and steady career. Mike worked in facilities management positions for many years before being made redundant in 2009. He was unable to find another job for two years, and lost his rented apartment. Hoping to ride out the rest of the financial crisis, he went to Vietnam to teach English but when he returned because he was ill, he found himself homeless and unable to get government assistance.
“It’s been a long and challenging journey, and conversely a rewarding one. Life is still difficult but I remain upbeat and am looking forward to the challenges ahead,” Mike says.
Unseen Tours wants to be incredibly clear that they are not trying to exploit the homelessness or poverty of any of their guides. The tours don’t highlight homelessness, rather the guides offer their own unique perspectives on traditional tourist areas in the city.
This is the itinerary for the London Bridge tour:
“This tour follows the artery of the Thames from this famous landmark, along South Bank and veering off into Borough’s more mysterious alleys that also contain powerful symbols of the outcast and social justice. Along the route, you will see the world’s greatest food market, Southwark Cathedral, the infamous Clink prison and a secret archaeological dig before ending up at one of the city’s oldest pubs.”
TripAdvisor reviews of the tours are mostly glowing:
“I would not normally have travelled to Camden as a tourist but this tour was great, what a fabulous area. Mike warmly shared his knowledge of specific events and people of the area as well as his personal story. I felt so much more connected with the area than I would have if I had just gone to Camden markets.”
“I came back from London a few days ago and I can still taste the memories of the amazing visit with Cris. He is very professional, well informed, smart, polite and able to drive your attention to the unseen details.”
Cris, a tour guide of the multicultural Brick Lane neighborhood, came about guiding through a charity called Providence Row, which helps people who are homeless search for a job. He left his native country, Spain, when the financial crisis hit. Unable to find work at home he moved to the UK, but found it just as difficult there and ended up living on the streets.
Cris says that in terms of income, being a tour guide hasn’t made a huge impact just yet, but it has given him something more important — a purpose.
“I have always wanted to bring my ideas to people, to make them aware of different situations, ideas and history. In a way, my tour is like a TV production, where I can share ideas with people,” he says.
Cris gives a tour of Brick Lane. (Photo: Unseen Tours)
For Hazel, the best part about guiding is the people she meets and designing the tours.
“I’ve found it really interesting to learn more about street names, history and architecture of the area. It’s amazing what you learn and how you start to see more of what’s around you,” she said. “I’ve met some really positive people, and some of them have even kept in touch with me afterwards, which is lovely.”
These days, Hazel has found local housing, but she is still giving tours to earn an income.
Check out our original adventure travel series, “A Broad Abroad.”