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Challenging the Social Stigma of Homelessness for 10yrs

Written by Claudia Dolezal

Unseen Tours have been challenging the social stigma surrounding homelessness for over the past 10 years. Here’s how.

Unseen Tours‘ anniversary marks 10 years of a social enterprise that has not only been changing the life of some of the most marginalised members of society but also challenged the social stigma surrounding homelessness.

Unseen Tours offers homeless and vulnerably housed Londoners the opportunity to train as tour guides in the city of London – turning the spaces and streets they inhabit into spaces of empowerment (Dolezal & Gudka, 2019; Dolezal & Lapointe, 2020). This is done through storytelling and the sharing of experiences of what it feels like to be homeless or vulnerably housed in the ‘glitzy’ city of London. 

Through collaborating with Unseen Tours over the past years, I have myself seen how training the guides not only provides a new livelihood, but how the sharing of knowledge in the context of an industry that so often excludes those in need, can elevate them into a position of authority. Unseen Tours therefore works to render those visible that are often made invisible, not just in a tourism context but in the city more broadly.

In doing so, it also appeals to the tourist’s desire to get off the beaten track, meet “real” people & Londoners and hear stories & see places that might usually be hidden from them (Dolezal & Gudka, 2019). 

Street in Soho

Current Times

Particularly in times of COVID-19, I have witnessed the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of Unseen Tours, the guides and volunteers. Through a series of “Not in the pub” quizzes taking place via the platform zoom, the organisation has yet again shown that there are always possibilities to create room for empowerment – even when those that had already been marginalised experienced even further marginalisation and a complete loss of their livelihood (Dolezal & Lapointe, 2020).

The quizzes have turned into a monthly entertainment night for many that have been looking for social events while lockdown, quarantine or home office. They have become a powerful tool not only to support the guides financially but also intangibly, giving them a sense of pride through curating the questions and content of the quizzes. 

The organisation is therefore not only an example of how to provide sustainable livelihoods to those in need, but also how important it is to be seen in a world where we often forget that inequalities exist not just in the Global South, but even around the corner.

Henri's Shoreditch Tour

Legacy & Future

In the past 10 years Unseen Tours has therefore delivered a steady legacy in terms of assisting Londoners in leaving behind homelessness but also in challenging the social stigma surrounding homelessness.

COVID-19 in particular has placed vulnerably housed and homeless Londoners in even more precarious situations. However, through the work of Unseen Tours, it becomes yet again obvious that the power of tourism is at the most dormant but will not disappear.

I have no doubt that in the next 10 years to come, Unseen Tours will continue to deliver on this legacy, and I am already curious to observe what future directions this will take. 

Dolezal, C. & Gudka, J. (2019). London’s ‘Unseen Tours’: Slumming or Social Tourism? In A. Smith & A. Graham (eds.). Destination London: The Expansion of the Visitor Economy. Available from: https://www.uwestminsterpress.co.uk/site/chapters/e/10.16997/book35.g/

Dolezal, C. & Lapointe, D. (2020). How a group of homeless and vulnerably housed tour guides reinvented themselves during the pandemic. The Conversation. Available from: https://theconversation.com/how-a-group-of-homeless-and-vulnerably-housed-tour-guides-reinvented-themselves-during-the-pandemic-139150