This is a rewritten version of a piece I wrote on London’s homeless tours in 2011.
No amount of playful London nerdery can prepare you for the emotional thump that is an Unseen Tour. These walks are organised by Sock Mob, an informal group of volunteers who work with London’s homeless – and it’s the homeless, or former homeless, who take you on the tour. In their company, you’ll learn things about London you probably didn’t know, like where to find the Second World War shrapnel on the side of St Clement’s Dane church on the Strand, and you’ll learn things you definitely didn’t know, like which Covent Garden cafe gives food on credit to the homeless when they are short of cash.
We meet at Temple, that aged hive of streets dominated by the vast grey Victorian Gothic splendour of the Royal Courts of Justice. Mark and Viv, the tour guides, have spent long periods sleeping rough and few people can have as strong a relationship with the streets of London as those who used to sleep on them. The next hour-and-a-half is a powerful mix of autobiography and ancient history. One minute Viv is talking about the Knights Templers, who lent their name to the area after building a circular stone church here in 1185, the next she’s telling you about the night she got chased from her ‘bash’ (a makeshift shelter constructed every night) under Waterloo Bridge by a gang of ‘rough elements’, a group of homeless women pursuing a petty feud. This truly is another London, and one that most of us will never have to discover. It is a bitterly cold night and as snowflakes fall , the bleak doorways that Mark once called home look especially uninviting. London can look like something from a fairy tale in the snow, but not this night.
As we move into Theatreland, the tour develops the ebb and flow of performance art as comic vignettes – a singalong of ‘The Muffin Man’ on Drury Lane – are mixed with upsetting accounts of the vicious treatment the public can hand out to the homeless. Mark and Viv have harrowing stories of their time on the streets. They talk of rough sleepers who have been spat on, robbed, punched and even set on fire by passers-by. ‘Somebody called me a tramp last week,’ says Mark, more indignant at this verbal slight than with the physical abuse he has received. Despite these dangers, this area between West End and City has always been popular with the homeless: the narrow streets are largely free of cars but receive plenty of pedestrians, often tourists on their way to the theatre, pockets jangling with change. Mark and Viv point out safe alleyways, often frequented by rough sleepers, that have been their former homes; or they take you to areas that the owners have rendered unusable for sleepers through the erection of barriers or removal of anything that may have acted as a shelter.
The walk concludes at Lincoln’s Inn Field, a large green square in Holborn surrounded by imposing terraces. With a fresh fall of snow on the lawn, it’s a majestic sight but this was once a vast homeless campsite called Tent City. In the early 90s, the homeless were noisily evicted, part of an ongoing campaign against rough sleeping that Mark and Viv say is escalating, with long-running soup kitchens being banned by councils and rough sleepers forced to move from favoured spots in the West End out into the suburbs where they can be ignored. There is danger here – previously rough sleepers found safety in numbers, but now the forces of the state, as well as private security firms hired by companies to protect the public appearance of their premises, crack down on large groups of homeless people. The number of homeless on London’s streets is rising, but that is harder to discern than it was in the 1980s, when there were huge homeless camps like Waterloo’s Bull Ring and Holborn’s Tent City. The state has sanitised the streets and tried to tidy the homeless away. They do not fit into the narrative of London as a great city of opportunity, reward and cash. But they still exist.
The tour finishes on this disconcerting note, and Viv and Mark depart for their hostels in a flurry of kisses, handshakes and farewells and I wander off into the snow, back to my warm home and family. London will never seem quite the same again.
There are Unseen Tours in Camden, London Bridge, Covent Garden, Shoreditch and Brick Lane. For more information and to book tickets, see here.