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Noted: The Unseen Tours of London

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Thanks to my newfound love for the Turner Classic Movie channel, I recently watched My Man Godfrey for the first time. Made in 1938, the film reveals our evolving attitude towards the homeless and downtrodden members of society. When Carole Lombard’s character stumbles upon William Powell, he is a “forgotten man,” living at the city dump. “Could you tell me why you live in a place like this when there’s so many other nice places?” Lombard asks all too sweetly. Powell retorts, “It’s because my real estate agent felt that the altitude would be very good for my asthma.”

Much has changed in society since 1938, yet one quote from Powell still stands out today: “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.” Perhaps no one has interpreted this quote quite like Sock Mob, a volunteer organization that seeks to provide opportunities for the homeless. Their most recent project is Unseen Tours, a guided walk through the popular sites of London. But this tour is unlike any other — all of the guides know what it’s like to be homeless in England’s capital. “A lot of people said, ‘Who would want to walk around with a homeless person?’ But we’ve proved them wrong. Since we started we’ve had more than 2,000 people come through,” says Lidija Mavra, an organizer for the tours. Unseen Tours isn’t just an amateur-led trek around the city — all guides are given history lessons and are trained in public speaking. But all of the insights of the tour guides are completely unrehearsed.

The project has been so successful that Sock Mob is developing tours in surrounding areas. What would compel someone to walk around the city with a guide who survived on the streets? Such a perspective is invaluable; through understanding the harsh realities of our city, perhaps we can consider new ways of improving and redefining urban life. More than that, Unseen Tours provides a platform for the invisible to become visible, where the “forgotten man” is once again remembered.

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Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.

2 Featured Comments

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  • elleestpetite

    elleestpetite says: Featured

    It's sad to think that the stigma of homelessness is partially the reason why the homeless remain in the state they are in.

    3 years ago

  • pamela1061

    pamela1061 says: Featured

    I work with people on social assistance and find that the Powell quote still rings true. I would like to add that while jobs may not be readily available, being treated with worth, dignity and respect go a long way to helping unemployed, homeless or disadvantaged persons cope with the adversity of their circumstances. That is a gift that each one of us can offer in dozens of ways each day. Thank you to Unseen Tours for your creativity in recognzing that everyone has something to offer and more often than not they have insights that would have been otherwise missed by those in the mainstream. Thank you for sharing this story!

    3 years ago

  • myvintagecrush

    myvintagecrush says:

    What an innovative idea! They would know the best, right?

    3 years ago

  • tylerja

    tylerja says:

    I hope this catches on everywhere!

    3 years ago

  • buddyxdesigns

    buddyxdesigns says:

    Wow, gr8 project! It would open my eyes in many ways.

    3 years ago

  • vintagejane

    vintagejane says:

    Interesting! We could all learn a lot from this concept!

    3 years ago

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage says:

    What a great idea. The other side of life.

    3 years ago

  • VoleedeMoineaux
  • rarebeasts

    rarebeasts says:

    Change can be so slow.

    3 years ago

  • lovelygifts

    lovelygifts says:

    Very interesting!

    3 years ago

  • MegansMenagerie
  • everythingok

    everythingok says:

    This is so cool, and really really makes me miss London.

    3 years ago

  • volkerwandering

    volkerwandering says:

    Great idea! That's using your resources in a positive way, for all!

    3 years ago

  • KwestStudio8

    KwestStudio8 says:

    I think of areas right here in Spokane, WA that are interesting but a little intimidating in their difference; one can actually feel the drop in optimism when one drives through those areas. It would be interesting to hear what goes on from an insider's point of view.

    3 years ago

  • rosebudshome

    rosebudshome says:

    Off the beaten track tours like these are very informative and eye opening.

    3 years ago

  • VijolicaVintage

    VijolicaVintage says:

    super interesting - wish i had known that a week ago :)

    3 years ago

  • ovgilliesdesigns

    ovgilliesdesigns says:

    That's a great idea! There are only so many Big Issue's one can buy or sell. Such schemes are very welcome & the tours are bound to be quite interesting - some of the homeless I've met in London have a great sense of humour!

    3 years ago

  • Apseed

    Apseed says:

    It's sounds so interesting and unusual! Great idea, thank you for sharing!

    3 years ago

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies says:

    Interesting.

    3 years ago

  • MootiDesigns

    MootiDesigns says:

    Sounds like a great tour. I recently did an underground tour in Seattle. Amazing! Part of Seattle downtown is underground by 1 level. So technically, all the buildings start at their second floor. But not everyone knows this. You get to go underground for two hours with a tour guide giving you the history of how this came about. Check it out next time you're in Seattle.

    3 years ago

  • fbstudiovt

    fbstudiovt says:

    I appreciate that it sounds like they've resisted the urge to turn this into a side-show and instead have given the guides the training anyone else would receive. Dignity is a precious thing.

    3 years ago

  • ErikaPrice

    ErikaPrice says:

    An amazing project - thanks for bringing these tours to our attention :)

    3 years ago

  • QuirkMuseum

    QuirkMuseum says:

    This is a great idea that could probably work in some of our big cities. I've wandered around NYC and found lots off interesting places by accident. But a program like this would be helpful to a lot of people who's time is limited. Not to mention that it would help put some money into the pockets of some people who really need it.

    3 years ago

  • Verdurebydesign

    Verdurebydesign says:

    The best ideas seem to be thought out of the box. I would love to go on that tour and learn things I didn't while living there.

    3 years ago

  • cookiechica

    cookiechica says:

    Thanks for namechecking one of my favorite movies--My Man Godfrey--as well as highlighting a fascinating project. I wish I knew of Sock Mob a few months ago, I would've passed it along to a family member who was touring London. Now I have yet another good reason to visit the UK!

    3 years ago

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage says:

    Very interesting and a great idea

    3 years ago

  • KINGxACE

    KINGxACE says:

    It's great that they're providing an opportunity for the less-fortunate of us, and that the tourists may also see the city through the eyes of someone else!

    3 years ago

  • dippylulu

    dippylulu says:

    The picture shows my favorite local when at work -- The Garrick. I've spent ahem...MANY a happy hour in there, or in The Lamb and Flag just around the corner. ;)

    3 years ago

  • elleestpetite

    elleestpetite says: Featured

    It's sad to think that the stigma of homelessness is partially the reason why the homeless remain in the state they are in.

    3 years ago

  • littlepopos

    littlepopos says:

    What a great idea and the post is so on point. From my past experience volunteering, I would agree that most homeless individuals feel like they've been forgotten. They are so surprised when someone greets them or shows them any form of kindness. Thank you for posting this.

    3 years ago

  • jmayoriginals

    jmayoriginals says:

    interesting! i love London.

    3 years ago

  • purlsofcolour

    purlsofcolour says:

    What a great project. People forget that the average person (especially in times like these) is only a few pay cheques away from homelessness. Sadly, it can happen very quickly...

    3 years ago

  • jennifermorrisbeads

    jennifermorrisbeads says:

    beautiful story. inventive solutions for problems give me hope that there are answers when get creative.

    3 years ago

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 says:

    What a fascinating idea.

    3 years ago

  • nellyvansee

    nellyvansee says:

    Pretty cool! Seems really interesting. When I travel, I rarely go to the typical tourist places, I just walk around to nowhere places. I've done a lot of that in my trip to London.

    3 years ago

  • AdjectivesandNouns

    AdjectivesandNouns says:

    I've been thinking lately that 30s movies like My Man Godfrey (also one of my favorite movies of all time, @cookiechica!) and Modern Times really aren't so very off-topic, at all. Things really haven't changed that much and absurd assumptions like My Man Godfrey points out aren't missing today.

    3 years ago

  • pamela1061

    pamela1061 says: Featured

    I work with people on social assistance and find that the Powell quote still rings true. I would like to add that while jobs may not be readily available, being treated with worth, dignity and respect go a long way to helping unemployed, homeless or disadvantaged persons cope with the adversity of their circumstances. That is a gift that each one of us can offer in dozens of ways each day. Thank you to Unseen Tours for your creativity in recognzing that everyone has something to offer and more often than not they have insights that would have been otherwise missed by those in the mainstream. Thank you for sharing this story!

    3 years ago

  • tiemee

    tiemee says:

    Interesting--it seems the tour guides would have a lot of insight for others without a place to live who are in need of a job.

    3 years ago

  • peshka

    peshka says:

    Fascinating article!

    3 years ago

  • RossLab

    RossLab says:

    London calling!

    3 years ago

  • PattiTrostle

    PattiTrostle says:

    Great idea!

    3 years ago

  • HoneyThistle

    HoneyThistle says:

    I just got shivers down my spine from reading this. Let's hope it spreads!

    3 years ago

  • yimmekedesign

    yimmekedesign says:

    Whoever came up with this great idea, to kindly ask a homeless fellow person to share his knowledge about the city he or she lives in, by being a tour guide ?! Hooray for this incentive. Isn't this a fundamental feeling we all have? To feel and be needed?! Now I for me, would LOVE that job. Thank you homeless person out there, for not giving up and for grabbing the hand that is trying to reach out.

    3 years ago

  • lulisplanet

    lulisplanet says:

    What a Great idea! I live in London and I would like to discover new places. I look forward to have a have walk round London with the Unseen Tours and know more about this beautiful city. Congratulations.

    3 years ago

  • BlackForestCottage

    BlackForestCottage says:

    very innovative in giving people jobs and self worth nice story

    3 years ago

  • duffybear

    duffybear says:

    I wish I could agree with the statement that "The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job". I work with homeless people. In today's society, people can work and still not be able to afford a place to live (unless, of course, you call a bedbug-and-mouse-ridden hotel room a place to live). The affordable housing situation in much of the world is a crisis. I regularly see people who are working and living in a shelter, with little hope of getting out because their income is too low or too unreliable. (No point saving up some money for the first months' rent and damage deposit, if you won't earn enough money for the second month's rent. I also see a fair number of employers who rip their employees off,btw.) While the idea you've presented is interesting, does it pay enough for people to get a home - and maintain it?

    3 years ago

  • brightcolour

    brightcolour says:

    Thanks for sharing, that sounds like an interesting film & I will look into the tours! I spent a bit of time volunteering at a day centre & we had some wonderful people coming in, many of whom manged to have a great sense of humour regardless of what was going on in their life. Pretty inspirational actually! Very good point about the cost of a place to live/income Duffybear. There's also that catch 22 of needing an address to get a job and then needing a job to keep the address, most people don't realise that it's very hard to sort both of these things out when you have nothing.

    3 years ago

  • sjegan

    sjegan says:

    Fantastic idea and a great way to get jobs for homeless people, should definitly do it in more parts of the world!

    3 years ago

  • samsstuff

    samsstuff says:

    Amazing idea that needs to be done all over the world!

    3 years ago

  • JodieH9570

    JodieH9570 says:

    I've been on one of these, they're really interesting! Probably not the best choice for tourists who's first language isn't English but for the rest of us it provides a deeper insight into what life is like living on the streets of London. As someone who's previously lived in London it was interesting to see how being homeless can change your opinion on things. Great idea.

    3 years ago

  • stwawberrygirl

    stwawberrygirl says:

    Thank you for the thought provoking article. I have been fascinated with London since I can remember, I love those double-decker busses and of course all of the wonderful musicians and actors that have come fromthe UK. If I could visit there I would be most happy and grateful.

    3 years ago

  • afternoontees

    afternoontees says:

    Very cool article.

    3 years ago

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery says:

    Interesting idea, I guess it'd be interesting for both tourists and locals. Seeing your city through a totally different perspective!

    3 years ago

  • nicolabaker1

    nicolabaker1 says:

    What a great idea, I can definitely see how both the guide and the people on the tour would get a positive experience from it. It's good to see things from a different perspective or view point, reflection is good for your own development and in turn for those around you. Great article.

    3 years ago

  • PlumeandPetals

    PlumeandPetals says:

    Nice article!

    3 years ago

  • Marumadrid

    Marumadrid says:

    The best insider outside, giving you a tour! :O THAT'S creativity, people.

    3 years ago

  • sharita

    sharita says:

    Makes me want to re-visit London - thank you for sharing this story!

    3 years ago

  • colorincolorado

    colorincolorado says:

    Love it!!

    3 years ago

  • beverbranson

    beverbranson says:

    USA are expecting more and more of the type of people described by Duffybear as 'ordinary' people become more and more unable to cope with descending work hours, cuts in their insurances from the employers trying to save business expenses, and then they get behind there goes the car, no car no job, there goes the home, some people here are living in cars in parking lots so as not to get illegal lodging tickets or their cars towed away after having to give up apartments or homes

    3 years ago

  • reehasmith

    reehasmith says:

    Great post about my native city.Ink cartridges thanks for it.

    3 years ago

  • BeauBazaar

    BeauBazaar says:

    Great post, it gives hope.

    3 years ago

  • spontaneousreality

    spontaneousreality says:

    beautiful story, love how mindsets can change from the most unlikely of sources!

    3 years ago

  • simpleadditions

    simpleadditions says:

    I wonder if these guides are now making a living wage, have a place to shower and change clothes, and food in their stomachs. Glamorizing the homeless issue by hiring homeless people to conduct tours may - and only may - be yet another way to sweep the issue under the rug. The idea is a contributive one only if it allows the holder of said job to make their way out of the homeless community and into the mainstream of society.

    3 years ago

  • mingerginger

    mingerginger says:

    I have actually been on one of these tours, The one led by Viv around Covent Garden. Thoroughly enjoyed it, not only was it informative but also gave a human dimension to homelessness in London, that we all too often choose to ignore/look past. I hardly think the SockMob are trying to glamourise homelessness as Simpleadditions has said above, Quite the contrary!!! Rather doing tour you realise that homelessness is a reality for many people. I disagree that its only contribution can be measured against whether it has encouraged people to reintegrate with society. We must praise any measure that gives someone their dignity. In addition tours like this give an enormous contribution to society itself!! The Sockmob was started a few years ago and I think the initial idea was to use the giving of socks to homeless people as starting point to begin a conversation, and from there to get to know them better. Instead of just offering food and blankets they offer friendship and regularly organise socials such as bowling.... Viv herself is still homeless, she is currently couch surfing so no longer living on the streets. I can't say if she earns alot from tour-guiding but I'm pretty sure that she receives the majority of the money. Highly recommend and urge anyone living/visiting London to do it! Here is a YouTube video http://youtu.be/N00WkkhWFPo

    3 years ago

  • calicarpa

    calicarpa says:

    What a great and intuitive concept to humanizing a city (creating respect, friendship and dialogue between all income levels). It seems like such an obvious idea for supporting both parties and creating positive change in everyone's life. We could use a program like that in my city. Thanks for the interesting article and bringing this to my awareness.

    3 years ago

  • lynngostelow

    lynngostelow says:

    simpleadditions indeed - or rather simple thinking. The homeless condition, the way of life is never going to be resolved, if indeed a homeless person wants his condition to be resolved, by the giving of paid work. Why would a homeless person want to be included in the 'mainstream' of society anyway when they surely do have a unique perspective of life and the general human condition and probably find comfort and make friendships among their own. While warmth and four walls might be desired, the total abandonment of a long lived way of life is difficult to achieve as is living a completely new way of life. I think a sense of self-worth. dignity, and pride in ones achievements must come before a person can intrigate back into society should they want to. As for "glamorising homelessness", I can't see or understand how at all? The world needs many more altruistic groups of people who can employ such initiative in making the forgotten classes feel valued and (as in the Sock Mobs case) have spin off which benefits the better off. Excellent work!! Brightens my day to hear of such ventures.

    3 years ago

  • amytee252

    amytee252 says:

    I remember reading about this a while ago, and figured it was a brilliant idea... mostly because of who it helps. I walk past the High Court in London each day... and there is this homeless dude who is always outside or near abouts... something tells me he knows enough stories to give one hell of an awesome tour, but like pretty much every homeless person out there, they remain an afterthought, which is aweful.

    3 years ago

  • anncunningham3

    anncunningham3 says:

    Its such a sad issue, people living on the streets in this day and age, I completly admire those who go back and tell their story's, and hope those lisning will be touched and help in some way. Great Idea.

    3 years ago

  • TheMillineryShop

    TheMillineryShop says:

    That's quite an interesting idea. I lived in London many years ago and think a tour like that would have made the streets "real" more quickly for me.

    3 years ago

  • nicolepaglianite

    Nicole Marie from eYarnmoni says:

    I would love to go to London one day. It looks so beautiful!

    3 years ago

  • sunflowerdesign

    Matteo and Francy from sunflowerdesign says:

    “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.” great!

    3 years ago

  • rietakeda

    Rie Takeda from NeoJaponismAtelier says:

    My dear London town!!! It is still my second home!!

    3 years ago

  • yqsl66

    Ada Ada from idajewelry66 says:

    Very interesting!

    3 years ago

  • carinenadia

    Carine says:

    I'm one of the volunteers at Unseen Tours and wanted to thank you all for the lovely comments... Come see us if you're in London!

    3 years ago

  • yvonanov

    Yvona Nov from yvonanov says:

    It's amazing idea. I've been asked few weeks ago to do an "alternative" guide to London for a friend of a friend. I think this would be something just right, not only for tourist but for people who live in London. I've been a Londoner for over 6 years, and the longer I live here the more I realise how many more places and secrets there are to discover. I don't know how about you, but I'm definitely going for the tour tomorrow :) Love London

    3 years ago

  • acb8284747274

    Alicia C from NatiiveWaistbeads says:

    I live in London and must go on one of these tours one day. The way the homeless live and are treated is absolutely disgusting especially in London

    3 years ago

  • TashaHussey

    Tasha Hussey from TashaHusseyJewelry says:

    I love London!

    2 years ago