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UNSEEN TOURS (LONDON)- STRATEGIC VOLUNTEERING TO ADDRESS 

HOMELESSNESS THE ENTREPRENEURIAL WAY!

What:  A social enterprise based in London that empowers the homeless [or those who have been recently homeless] by turning them into tour guides giving walk-tours of certain areas in and around London.

 

The short story- Started in 2010 by Faye Shields, this is an off-shoot of the Sock Mob, a nonprofit charity. Started to coincide with the London Fringe Festival, the organization works with current or [recently] homeless, who, as tour guides show patrons interesting things about some areas in and around London.

The one line summary: An entirely volunteer-led organization, it is vastly successful with the 5 different areas the tours are given, showing an 'unseen' side of London and winning awards along the way. 

How: Using their route knowledge of areas where they reside/used to reside, the homeless or formerly homeless show groups of people around the area, pointing out interesting facts and artefacts which get normally missed whilst doing 'proper' sightseeing. Patrons buy tickets for the tour, majority of which go to the tour guides. In addition, they get a sense of usefulness, routine and feel wanted and actually get to put to use the skills (knowledge of the area) they have learned over the years. 

Of interest to: People working with the homeless, those in larger cities /tourist hotspots, creating direct impact through strategic volunteering, people looking for 'out of the box' solutions, volunteer-run organizations, those enterprises that need local knowledge and those working with the urban footprint. Also of interest to those working with travel/tourism.

THE CASE STUDY

We take a deeper look into this organization, examining and analyzing some of the major issues an organization of this kind has to deal with. This includes both the good and the speed bumps. As always, our aim is to help those wanting to innovate and / or support initiatives that address homelessness to be aware of what it takes to turn an idea like this to reality.

Geography and local culture matters, but there is enough commonality here for people from anywhere in the world to relate to and adapt to their own situation.

Unseen Tours Cae Stdy

THE PROBLEM

  • Chronic homelessness.

  • Prevalent everywhere globally, acute in larger cities.

  • The homeless invariably have poor hygiene and often suffer from dental and mental health issues.

  • They are vulnerable and marginalized in society and often lack means to earn income and as a result, provide food and shelter for themselves.

 

THE IDEA

  • The homeless, by living on the streets have strong route knowledge, they know their surroundings very well, they know nooks and crannies that everyone else will miss. 

  • To harness this and provide guided tours to tourists and locals, show them a new side of London, earn money and raise their standards of living, gain self-confidence taking them a step closer to reintegrating into mainstream society.

THE ORIGIN

  • Unseen Tours is an off-shoot of Sock Mob, another nonprofit charity focused on homelessness as well.

  • Unseen Tours was started in 2010 to create larger impact via a (social) business model, actively helping the homeless earn income and raise their levels.

 

THE ORganization

  • This is a social enterprise, which focuses on active income earning for the homeless.

  • It is entirely volunteer run, making it an interesting option for those wanting to take their volunteering skills to a new level, making their time count.

  • Each tour guide is paired with a coordinator (volunteer) who work one-on-one. 

  • The coordinator is present at all tours and guides sometimes act as mentors and confidants to the guides.

  • See 'Read More' tabs on Origin and Methodology

THE METHODOLOGY

  • Unseen Tours personnel scout for potential guides, shortlist and select a few that are suited for the role.

  • Come up with a route and script together.

  • Other modalities decided on mutual convenience.

  • Money from the tours shared on a previously agreed percentage.

  • Every guide is paired with a coordinator to ensure routine and a degree of formality with the tour clients.

 

THE WISHLIST

  • More awareness about their work with the private sector

  • Software (billing, accounting, booking systems) that is reasonably priced and relevant to their work

  • Better customer service; a full time employee to coordinate overall

  • Practical mentoring 

 

THE CHALLENGES

  • Maintaining a routine, route and sticking to the script [from the tour guide point of view]

  • An all-volunteer organization comes with organizational, coordinating and other problems

  • Funding & Marketing advice

  • no dedicated full-time staff

  • Software and other support

 

THE POSITIVES

  • Homeless and recently homeless get an opportunity to earn income

  • They have a chance to use the knowledge they have gathered over the years

  • Helps regain self confidence and boost morale- raises their overall wellness levels.

  • A new model for strategic volunteering- using skills to start and run organizations and not just donate time/follow somebody else's vision.

Image courtesy throughout the page unless mention otherwise: Unseen Tours

Pointers when working with the homeless

However wonderful your idea is, the homeless are a particularly difficult target audience. Especially when the idea is an entrepreneurial one involving active inputs from them. Here are some pointers that could be useful.

  • Treat them as equals

  •  Be up front and acknowledge the need for their skills

  •  Be clear about payment and other regulatory issues

  •  Meet in a public place, out in the open

  • Take someone with you, tell someone where you will be

  • Buy food- partake the same food and / or drink

  •  Do not smile unnecessarily or nod your head

  •  Be sincere, the homeless are very sharp to peoples’ reactions- they can smell a phony a long way off!

  •  They spend a lot of time being ignored, you cannot take it personally if they do the same to you!

  •  Explain your idea simply- do not assume they won’t understand and over explain [ common mistake]

  • The homeless invariably have poor hygiene- be prepared for that

  • Do not give out cash unnecessarily.

  • Know where to draw the line- how much do you wish to help? Will that take you away from your mission? - It is very easy to get sucked into their life and issues within, you are there for a reason, you have a role to play as well. Keep that in mind. You will not be of much help otherwise. 

  • Do not overpromise- be very clear (first to yourself) what you can deliver. Do no stray from that. Confidence and trust once broken will take a long time to fix, esp. with the homeless segment

  • Know your organizational mission and vision. Do NOT stray from that without reason or prior advice. If you are, make sure to document it so you know when and why it was done.

  • Do not solve mental and behavioral health issues unless you are qualified to do so and it is required of you. The homeless often suffer from either or both. See where and how you can help strategically instead of trying to solve it directly.

  • Remember the impact you are trying to create and use it to guide your actions

And finally.....

We are very grateful to Albert Kurniadi, volunteer, coordinator and Board Member of Unseen Tours for taking the time to talk to us in-depth about the organization and share with us his experience and honest opinions. The observations and analysis of this case study is so much stronger because of his inputs.

Thank you Albert!

Albert Kurniadi

Operations and External Relations Coordinator

Unseen Tours can be contacted at: http://sockmobevents.org.uk/ 

Image courtesy: Pexels/Dominika Gregusova

NOTE: The information presented here is, to the best of our knowledge accurate. Whilst every effort has been made to get the facts right, should the readers find any anamolies, please write to us and let us know. We will look into it right away. 

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