The issue of homelessness—or being unhoused, or facing housing scarcity—isn’t something we often talk about when it comes to travel, unless it’s in a negative sense. On this week’s episode of Unpacked we hear from the London tour company that’s changing the narrative.
Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week.
This week we’re exploring the intersection of travel and the issue of housing deprivation—or, as many refer to it, homelessness. It’s a tricky subject, but one that is close to my heart. See, I have a close family member who has experienced homelessness. And I live in the Bay Area, which has, as you may know, struggled under the weight of a certain narrative around the topic.
In fact, you may have seen recently that a TikTok star cut his trip to San Francisco short, citing several issues, including safety. I won’t go deeply into the issue other than to share my perspective: Many parts of the city feel alive and vibrant and safe, although I challenge us all to explore how and when and why we use the word “safe.”
I know that it can be scary and it can be uncomfortable when we encounter people who are altered, or grappling with mental illness, or simply without the comforts I know that I take for granted. But when we as travelers avoid these feelings of discomfort, we’re missing out on a story of an individual or a place. I’m not saying we put ourselves in jeopardy or even hand out food at the next tent city we see on our travels, but to avoid the subject doesn’t seem right either. There are larger, systemic issues at play here, and we won’t necessarily solve them with travel. But let’s at least have the conversation. So, in this episode, we’re going to meet a walking-tour company that is bringing homelessness into the tourism narrative.
Our guide is Rachel Parsons, a multimedia journalist and host of the solo travel series The Peregrine Dame. She splits her time between L.A. and London, which is where she came across the groundbreaking work of Unseen Tours.
Nic Shaw, tour guide: Here at St. Giles in the Fields, this was literally a field. And it was where people came, and they were hung, drawn, and quartered.
Rachel Parsons, journalist: For my money, there’s no better way to spend a couple of hours in a new city than a good walking tour. Especially one that reminds me I’m lucky to live in an era where I’m unlikely to be publicly eviscerated. I love a little history—
Nic: He became a doctor for Henry the VIII simply because he was found with three women. Because, of course, you know he’d become a monk. And monks aren’t supposed to be with women.
Rachel: —a little architecture.
Nic: St. Patrick’s Church was, no, not a church. It was actually a house. It was called Carlisle House. There’s another Carlisle House over there. But this was a slightly dodgier one.
Rachel: And London is chock-full of them. Not dodgy houses (though there are still plenty of those around). I mean walking tours. Food tours, pub tours, architecture tours, history tours, street art tours, and of course the ubiquitous Jack the Ripper tours in the once gritty and dark East End.
But I’m in the bright lights and polished—if commercialized—refinement of the West End. I’m joining guide Nic Shaw on one of her tours of the Soho and St. Giles districts. Soho is London’s notorious nightlife hub. Opulent theaters and flat-faced, Victorian brick buildings squeeze narrow sidewalks, forcing pedestrians onto narrow streets, the pavement of which covers most of the old cobbles. Once a den of iniquity, today Soho and St. Giles are known more for cheesy clubs and expensive restaurants than public executions.
London’s queer community also has deep roots in Soho. Nic stops in front of a door with an ornate knocker on a quiet pedestrian path called Flitcroft Street. In 1935, it was the door to Billie’s, a gay members club. Homosexual behavior being illegal, Billie’s and the Caravan Club, not far away, were under heavy secret police surveillance.
Nic: This was just two of goodness knows how many there were. And they were open for about a year. And then the government came along and said, “You know this, this is Satan’s work. We have to close these places.” And they did.
Rachel: What followed were aggressive raids by the Metropolitan Police and lengthy trials and sentences for scores of customers and club owners.
We’re all contemplating historical social injustice when Nic—who’s been leading tours since 2019—takes this moment to segue into some history of a personal nature.
Nic: The only reason that I, I got a decent home, uh, was because I was in hostels, but then I was put in, this charity called Broadway put me in, um, with a girl—woman, sorry—who was, had just come out of rehab. She’d been on heroin.
Rachel: If this seems a bit [of a] non sequitur for a history walking tour, it’s because Nic is a guide with Unseen Tours. It’s a social enterprise in London that hires people who were previously homeless. Nic Shaw spent about 12 years as one of the thousands of hidden homeless in this city, bouncing from hostel to hostel. Jayni Gudka, the organization’s CEO, tells me that Unseen Tours guides have lived through a range of homelessness, including living on the streets, known in Britain as “sleeping rough.”
One note on the sound: Jayni has agreed to meet me on a particularly miserable, rainy London day, and we’ve had to tuck away in a noisy coffee shop.
Jayni Gudka, CEO of Unseen Tours: So our tour guides, some have been rough sleeping in London for many years. Some have not experienced that form of homelessness, but they’ve experienced hidden homelessness. So they may have had hospital stays which left them homeless afterwards or didn’t have somewhere to go after their stint in hospital. Um, they may have slept in cars when they were displaced from wherever they were staying. Or they have had relationships break down, and that may have led them to being homeless, staying in hostels, couch surfing sometimes. So it does vary quite a bit. And I think that’s something we’re keen to raise awareness about through our tours.
Rachel: To be clear, this is not poverty tourism, and Unseen Tours does not hire guides who are still homeless. Instead, Jayni says if someone comes to them who’s unhoused, the first order of business is to work with partner organizations to get a roof over their head before training starts.
On her tour, Nic shares how she finally got into stable housing—sometime around 2010, she can’t quite remember—and that ended a dozen years of living one night to the next. She had help from social workers before finding Unseen Tours. And I will get back to that. But to understand her path out of homelessness, it’s important to understand her journey into it.
Nic’s invited me to her apartment where we can talk away from the noise of the street. It’s in a neat public housing complex with a lush green courtyard in Covent Garden on the edge of St. Giles. Her living room is overflowing with history books. There are stacks on the shelves, on the floor, on the tables. The walls are a vivid, deep green and coordinate with Nic’s green jacket, green jewelry, and green fingernail polish. At 66 and sober, Nic says she knows no one would look at her and think she’d been homeless.
Nic: And you’re always going to get . . . People think, “Oh, f-ing homeless, look at them. They’re just scroungers, they haven’t—.” But people don’t understand the situation. They really haven’t a clue how things can change. And this is what I kind of start my tour saying: You never know. You just don’t know what’s going to happen in life. You start, everything’s fine and lovely, and you’ve got this and you’ve got that. Things don’t always work out.
Rachel: Nic was born in 1956 in northwest England. She became a nurse, got married young, and had two children. From the outside, everything looked . . . fine.
Nic: People say they’re fine, don’t they? “Oh, I’m fine. Oh, how are you, Rachel? Oh, I’m fine.” Do you know what it stands for? F*cked up, Insecure, Nervous, and Emotional. That is what it stands for. And it’s true quite often, but we all kind of got this big smile on our face.
Rachel: In Nic’s case the smile couldn’t hide the bruises. Her husband was physically and psychologically abusive. She eventually left him. Time passed, and she met someone new. And for a number of years, found love and stability. She was still nursing and studying criminology part-time. Then one day she came home from work and found her partner, dead. Painful years of past trauma and new loss manifested as mental illness and eventually, alcohol addiction.
Nic: Really things just fell apart. My sister said, come and live with me in East Dulwich. So I went to live with her, but my head was screwed.
Rachel: Back then, Nic says, her sister in London couldn’t cope and didn’t understand the depth of Nic’s problems. She asked Nic to move out. With nowhere to go, Nic found a bed in a hostel that catered to the down-and-out, homeless, and people in the throes of addiction.
She continued to work as a nurse. In fact, she held paying jobs and volunteer positions throughout her time unhoused. Though, she says, much of her income went to alcohol. Nic Shaw was 42 when she moved into that hostel and became homeless.
Nic: But um, I say homeless. But then there’s lost, feeling lost. Just feeling lost can be quite different. I feel like I was homeless a lot longer than I was really simply because I didn’t have my own place just to call mine.
Rachel: She pauses and looks around her green sitting room.
Nic: So, this is my first ever—I created my own home. I did, this is my first own bed. First own floor, you know, it’s all these little things. It’s about something being your own.
Rachel: Helping guides reclaim that sense of ownership in their professional lives as well is a cornerstone of Unseen Tours’ mission. But it’s also about representation and visibility in the tourism business, an industry that does its best to render people living through homelessness invisible. As CEO Jayni Gudka points out, who better to illustrate the fullness of lived experience in a place?
Jayni: If they’ve been sleeping in the streets, they know the streets better than anyone. They know the interesting personalities better than anyone.
Rachel: And they know the stories they want to tell. Jayni says staff and volunteers work with guides on things like building confidence and public speaking but are careful not to interfere with the essence of the guide’s story.
Jayni: So we’re really keen to make sure that the people that we work with are able to share their stories in their own voices. Without putting words into their mouth, without telling them what they should be saying and how they should be portraying homelessness because it’s their individual experience; it’s their own unique experiences. And of course everyone experiences homelessness very differently.
Rachel: Which is why each guide shares as much or as little of their background as they choose. And that brings me back to Nic’s. Ninety-nine percent of her two-hour tour is history and culture. But she shares her transition out of homelessness to highlight the holes in the safety net.
Remember, she’d been sleeping in hostels for about 12 years when her social workers found her a roommate and put them in public housing. The woman’s name was Lana.
Nic: She’d been on heroin. She’d been out of rehab for four weeks. I joined her. I’ve never done drugs. Drink, yeah. Drugs, no.
Rachel: Lana quickly fell back into her heroin addiction. Things got dangerous when acquaintances of Lana’s started coming around their apartment at all hours, trying to kick in the door. Nic’s case workers knew they had to get her out. They helped Nic into an apartment of her own—
Nic: —and Lana has not been seen for 11 years. So she’s probably dead. And, what do you say? I believe it was only because of Lana, the situation with Lana, they got me out. Which sounds awful. It seems I was the last person to see her.
Rachel: Although things turned out in Nic’s favor, it could have easily have gone differently because homelessness in London has only increased in the last decade, straining the city’s support system. Liz McCulloch is policy and research manager at St. Mungo’s, a nonprofit homeless services organization.
Liz McCulloch: The most recent annual data we have, uh, showed that there were 10,053 people sleeping rough in London. So that was a 21 percent increase from the previous year.
Rachel: That’s more than 10,000 people sleeping on the street. But like Nic, thousands more don’t show up in the numbers. With hidden homelessness, Liz says, there’s no way to know for sure.
Liz: The problem with hidden homelessness is that it encompasses people who basically fall through the gaps of the system. So it’s people who are sofa surfing, it’s people who are maybe riding, um, maybe are sleeping in an insecure place, maybe in a squat at night, and then during the day they maybe ride public transport. And so these groups aren’t being necessarily picked up as a specific group by statistics, but we need to think about the hidden homeless group in order to effectively tackle rough sleeping, because these are essentially people who are on the verge of sleeping rough.
Rachel: And there’s little that tourism professionals—and frankly, a lot of travelers—are more allergic to than the sight of people sleeping on the street. Especially in a glamorous destination such as London, where tourism rakes in tens of billions of dollars a year.
Jayni: In our experience, people who’ve experienced homelessness are usually excluded from the tourism narrative. So if we think back to the London Olympics, or the royal wedding of Harry and Meghan, people who were homeless were displaced from the areas in which these events were taking place. Because London or the U.K. in general didn’t want to be seen as having this problem of homelessness when the world was watching.
Rachel: And it’s not just London. It happens everywhere. I’ve witnessed it firsthand in cities as far-flung as Los Angeles, Rio, and Manila when a large sporting event, president, or pope appears.
Jayni: And so, obviously Unseen Tours, we think this is a missed opportunity and it’s a shame. Because the insights that people have when they’ve been rough sleeping or just been homeless in a community, like, the new perspectives and the different quirky facts, um, that they have about a community is just not something that are usually seen in walking tours or in the tourism industry.
Rachel: So Nic and her colleagues understand the multilayered context of their tour sites like few others. They also have a firm grasp of factual history. In Soho, Nic leads us to one of her favorite stops. Soho Square. She points out number 21, which, she says, in the 19th century, contributed to Soho’s infamous reputation for naughtiness.
Nic: They bought this place, and they made it into the Magic Hotel. Or the White House, or various other names. It was, it was a brothel. Same as.
Rachel: “They” were high-society dominatrix Theresa Berkley and a business partner. She’s said to have invented the Berkley Horse, a BDSM whipping rack. The upper crust of society and nobility were willing to pay Berkley handsomely for her absolute discretion and her cat-o’-nine-tails. As a letter from one of Theresa’s prospective client makes clear. Nic reads it to us.
Nic: “A pound sterling to the first blood drawn, two pounds sterling if the blood runs down to my heels, three pounds sterling if my heels are bathed in blood, four pounds sterling if the blood reaches the floor, and five pounds sterling if you succeed in making me lose consciousness.” [Audience laughter.] Exactly! But I mean if that’s what you want.
Rachel: Nic’s tour is all about history. But Jayni says each guide curates their tour based on their interests, and they have plenty of assistance from staff throughout that preparation.
Jayni: It’s a very bespoke process. So we work with the guides on a one-to-one basis. Um, it can take between 3 months to I think 21 months was the longest time it took to develop one tour.
Rachel: That was Nic’s, by the way.
Jayni: We’re very keen to make sure that we don’t give a set script to any of our tour guides. It’s their tour and they own it. So it’s the stories that they’re most passionate about. Both from their own experiences and the communities around them.
Rachel: A large part of the process is providing support services. Nic took nearly two years to create her tour to really learn the history of her patch but also to build the self-assurance needed to get in front of strangers.
Jayni: The challenges that people with experience of homelessness have can vary so much. So some people may need some more support with mental health, mental well-being, trauma they may have experienced when they were homeless. Some people may have lost their confidence because they felt invisible when they were experiencing homelessness. So how can we change that to help someone build up their self-confidence, their self-worth? Help them with public speaking skills or other skills that they may need to create their walking tours? But also, um, we find that the people we work with are just fantastic storytellers. They have really interesting stories to tell not just of their own experiences but also stories about London, stories about the community that they live in, and they know so well.
Rachel: Since Unseen Tours started in 2010, 24 guides have hosted more than 25,000 tourists throughout London. The organization is developing plans to expand to other cities in the U.K. and abroad. Jayni says, in the end, she hopes that tours spark a deeper dialogue between customers and guides.
Jayni: Just to help have conversations about homelessness, with often, with people who often just don’t have a chance to speak about these topics, and who may have, kind of, stereotypes, or stigmas that they personally associate with homelessness, their own prejudices, for example. So having these conversations in quite an open, frank manner.
Rachel: For Nic Shaw, her tours are about piercing the glitzy veneer of London’s West End, especially of those who live in it.
Nic: It’s just to take away the fact, just don’t believe what you see. Just because somebody looks OK. People put on such a facade.
Rachel: In the years that I’ve been traveling to and living in London, I’ve seen its facade crack as homelessness worsens and holes in the safety net stretch. I have always believed, as a traveler, I have a responsibility to see the full spectrum of a place, warts and all. To understand it in its context. I believe shutting my eyes to the ugliest aspects of a place does me and the destination a grave disservice. Walking through Soho with our small group, I have a deep sense of admiration for Nic Shaw. For the strength it takes to stand front of total strangers and talk about the worst years of her life, three times a week. For her willingness to be vulnerable, and for her resilience. For her insistence on being seen and acknowledged. And compassion for all those she represents who remain unseen.
Aislyn: And that was Rachel Parsons. We’ll link to her work in the show notes, as well as to Unseen Tours. And when they expand to other cities, we’ll be sure to let you know. And if you take a tour with them, be sure to let us know.
Next week, we’ll be back with our first “Unpacking” episode of the season, focused on Albuquerque.
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This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin. And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.