Homeless Tour Guides Show Visitors A Darker Side Of The City

Homeless Prague Czech Republic WinterA portrait of a homeless man in Prague.

Photo: AP

There are a multitude of ways to experience a new city — biking, pub crawls, and museums among them.But what about through the eyes of a homeless person?

A growing trend in Europe, as well as in San Francisco’s infamous Tenderloin district, is city tours led by a homeless guide. The tours are marketed as a cheap alternative for visitors who want to see a different side of well-known world capitals.

The Guardian was one of the first to report on homeless tours back in 2010, specifically London’s Unseen Tours. Unseen Tours grew out of a volunteer network called Sock Mob that would distribute socks and food to London’s homeless population. It started training some of the city’s homeless to give tours of the places they lived. Of the £7-£10 per person rate, the guide keeps the majority of the cash, though some is reinvested into Sock Mob for future volunteer training.

Reuters followed up on the growing trend in Prague, reporting last month that from August to December 2012, 430 people paid roughly $10 to visit the spots where the Czech city’s homeless population lived. Half of the proceeds went to the homeless guide, and the rest to a student-run agency called Pragulic that puts together the tours.

Like other traditional city tours, visitors can register for homeless tours online: San Francisco’s Homeless Walking Tour is on the website Vayable; a homeless tour in the Netherlands simply called “Walking with a Homeless Guy in Amsterdam” is available through Mokum Events; and you can sign up to reserve tickets for Unseen Tours in London on its website as well.

Faktum Hotels Homeless swedenLocation 1 on Faktum’s website.

Photo: Faktum Hotels

Tours are not the only homeless-centric novelty appealing to tourists these days. There’s now a website where a variety of homeless camp “hotels” are available to book in Gothenburg, Sweden.First reported by PSFK, the website’s goal is to raise awareness for where the majority of the city’s homeless have to seek shelter at night. The money raised, either by donation or from those who choose to stay in the camps, goes toward the street magazine Faktum that writes about —and employs — Gothenburg’s homeless population.

Whether it’s a homeless hotel or tour, the idea is not only to raise money, but to focus on the darker side of city culture. London’s Unseen Tours, for example, mentions the “Winchester Geese,” medieval London prostitutes who were taken advantage of by the city’s Bishops and buried in the Cross Bones graveyard reserved for “the outcast dead.” Prague’s tour guides speak candidly about how hard it is to become employed as a homeless person and the crime and disease one can witness, while San Francisco’s guides lead visitors through shelters and soup kitchens for an in-depth look at living on the street.

But do the tours take advantage of a vulnerable population?

In one listing we saw, the guide was described as more of a cultural rarity than a human being. From the Amsterdam ad on Mokum :

Take a walk with this very interesting person and experience what it’s like to live on the streets, to depend on the generosity of other people, to eat what you and I think not to be healthy anymore and to sleep at the Salvation Army or at worst, to sleep in a cardboard box in the open air!

The website goes on to promise that the homeless guide is not unhappy, and “will tell you with pleasure his story and the adventures of his drifting friends.”

San Francisco Homeless TourStill from a San Francisco Homeless Tour video.

Photo: Vimeo

Language aside, the idea of taking a tour of these homeless communities is still dubious. When done without thought to treating the homeless as human beings and not simply objects to be witnessed, the tours are at best problematic and at worst hugely exploitative.But when done well — where the goal is to see the city through the eyes and experiences of the homeless and not simply to view the homeless individuals as a cultural attraction — the tours can be constructive. They are a chance to give a voice to a largely voiceless culture, and show what life can be like for this socially invisible community. For the guides, being able to tell their own story can also provide a sense of ownership over their lives, and a chance for candid discussion.

As Badalec, a Prague tour guide, said to Reuters: “I’m trying to do the best I can. I don’t steal, I don’t cheat people, I don’t abuse welfare benefits. The tours are great. They are a chance for me to explain myself better.” Which is all any of us really wants.

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