FEATURE-From skinheads to street art: homeless tour guides walk away from the streets

by Umberto Bacchi | @UmbertoBacchi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 16 November 2017 06:00 GMT

People walk past street vendors at Brick Lane Sunday Market in east London, in this March 2, 2008, archive photo. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

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"A lot of people think homeless persons are all druggies and alkies (alcoholics) ... but there are also others like me that have an unfortunate situation"

By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON, Nov 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When he moved to London after university, Pete had a well-paid job, a girlfriend and a roof over his head. Three years later, he lost it all in the space of a few months.

"Initially I went squatting," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, sipping a cup of tea at a cafe in east London's eclectic Brick Lane, where he has been living as a homeless man for almost a decade.

Now in his 40s, he plans to rent a place of his own soon, after two years working as a guide for Unseen Tours - a social enterprise that employs the homeless to show tourists around London streets where they have lived. "It's my favourite job ever. I've always been a bit of an actor and a storyteller," said Pete, who did not want to give his full name as his family is not aware of his situation.

Homelessness has been soaring in Britain in recent years, with record numbers of people sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation due to rising rents, welfare cuts and a lack of affordable homes, charities say.

More than 300,000 people did not have a place to call home in 2017, up 4 percent on the previous year, according to the housing charity Shelter.

With a penchant for politics and foreign swear words, Pete's East End tour takes in street art, gentrification and sites where suffragettes campaigned for women's right to vote, skinheads attacked immigrants and Jack the Ripper roamed.

Pete is one of three homeless guides currently working with Unseen Tours at three London locations. They keep 60 percent of the money earned, with the rest spent on running costs.

Pete, who has been living in a hostel for the homeless since 2016, said he can earn up to 1,000 pounds ($1,300) a month.

Group tours are held between two to four times a week, each ticket costing 12 pounds ($16). The company said it has helped more than 20 homeless people get back on their feet since it started in 2010.

But it is not just about money.

"The first aim is to empower the guide and the second is to challenge public perceptions of homeless people," said Giacomo Mason, a volunteer who helps run the company.

Tours hope to raise awareness about homelessness and its social causes, while building bridges between the poor and the rest of society, he said.

"A lot of people think homeless persons are all druggies and alkies (alcoholics) - and a lot of them are of course - but there are also others like me that have an unfortunate situation," Pete said, referring to addicts.

Pete, a homeless man working as a tourist guide for social enterprise Unseen Tours, points at a street-art installation near Brick Lane, London, Britain on November 11, 2017. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Umberto Bacchi

Anyone can become homeless, he said, describing how in 2008 he found out his girlfriend was having an affair and quit his job as a salesman, after losing his temper with a boss who demanded he clean shave every day.

"I hate shaving," he said.

Without a good reference, it proved impossible to find another job. Too ashamed to ask his family for help, he fell behind with his rent and lost his home.

But Pete is confident that his days on the streets are coming to an end, as working with Unseen Tours has restored his confidence and he has also started working on a market stall.

"I can hold my head up high," he said. "I am proud of what I am doing."

($1 = 0.7598 pounds)

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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