Homeless tourism, the elephant in the room

Homeless tourism. It’s a bizarre trend.

You discover a city with a guide. So far the obvious part of city tripping. The twist is that your guide is homeless and shares with you his or her experiences as a homeless in the city.

The expression ‘the elephant in the room’ fits well when I see a homeless guy sitting next to the must-see in a city. You don’t want to watch, you don’t want to see it but you can’t help it to have a quick glance. The poor guy.

Followed by a reality-check. While I’m having a blast on my fancy city-trip, people are living on the streets in that same city. Do I have to feel guilty? Am I a selfish bastard becasue I’m having a holiday?

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Last weekend I read an article from a journalist who wanted to rediscover the authencity of travelling. She learnt about ‘homeless tourism’. She searched for some organisations that offers tours by homeless people. Amsterdam Underground is one of them and you can read on their website:

How do you survive on the streets? Ex-homeless guides tell their personal stories. The only non-profit provider of walking tours by ex-homeless people in Amsterdam.

Their baseline is ‘Stories of the streets’:

Amsterdam is well-known for its drugs. So this city has a lot to tell via its homeless (former) addicts. On the tour they give you inside info and along with that, they greet their former drugs dealers. A bit surreal if you ask me.

Intriged by the subject I started to search for more about this atypical form of city tripping.

In an article from The Guardian I read:

From Prague to Los Angeles, tours led by homeless guides are showing visitors the dark heart of familiar cities – but does it help, or is it just poverty porn?

Poverty porn. Is it really that? A bit further in the article you read:

Similar groups have cropped up in Berlin, Copenhagen, Athens, Vienna and Edinburgh. In London, Unseen organises two-hour thematic tours, such as a “rock’n’roll” tour of Camden by a former music manager and ex-homeless man who goes by the handle Mike the Mob. In Los Angeles, youth groups can pay $75 per head to have their charges spend a day and a night at a Christian mission on Skid Row.
The tours come at a time when some cities are attempting to effectively outlaw homelessness. In the UK, there are fears that benefits cuts will worsen the housing crisis. Jess Turtle, co-founder of the new Museum of Homelessness, which will put on a pop-up event at Tate Modern on 8-9 April, says: “A huge number of people are being socially cleansed, and are living precariously, in a constant state of flux.”

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In Vienna you also have a similar organization: Shades Tours. On their site you can read:

This authentic, professional and insightful tour will submerge you into a mostly hidden and unseen world. During this 2-hour tour your guide will provide you with a mix of facts and personal stories that illustrate the complexity of homelessness. (without being voyeuristic!).

For the record, the last part wasn’t added by me. In this article about the organization you can read:

Launched last year, the social start-up is part of a growing European trend that sees the needy hired as city guides as a way to help them reintegrate.

While they show tourists in Paris around famous landmarks, the Vienna concept goes a step further to peel off the stigma attached to homelessness.

“I wanted (the tours) to be more educational,” explained Shades Tours creator Perrine Schober, a 33-year-old tourism management graduate.

“We (see) homelessness on a daily basis but we have no idea what it is actually about, so I guess that’s the reason people look away instead of trying to help,” the French-Austrian told AFP.

It remains contradictory for me: is homeless tourism ‘stories of the street’ or ‘poverty porn’?

I think it all depends on your motivation to book a tour. Is it about the raw city life or about the behind-the-scenes feeling? Up to you.

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