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?
It is a Friday afternoon in late winter and I am standing outside Prague’s central train station, near a bronze statue of Woodrow Wilson, stripping to my long underwear. A few minutes earlier I’d met Klára, from the tourism group Pragulic, who hauled carrier bags filled with the clothes I would wear over the next 24 hours as a homeless person.
Along with my new outfit, she gave me two things: a late-model Nokia programmed with contacts for the police, fire department, Pragulic’s staff and my guide, Robert, and an envelope containing my budget – 20 koruna (60p). “You can use it to change in the bathrooms in the station,” she says, “or you can save it and change out here.”
I look around the park, take a deep breath and strip off my coat, wool jumper, leggings and trainers. (“You came prepared,” Klára says drily when she sees my long-johns.) I pull on a T-shirt, sweatshirt and oversized jacket, and cinch the trousers – four sizes too big and stained – using a belt from one of the bags. As I dress, two people hover nearby. Could they have the leftover clothes? They are briskly rebuffed by Klára, and wander to benches where several other homeless people hang out. It is seven degrees and sunny, but I’d been advised to carry around the extra jumpers – it is unclear where I’ll be sleeping.
I surrender the outfit I’d arrived in, along with my shoes and wallet, and tuck my passport in my bra. Klára turns a blind eye when I stuff my hat and gloves into the pockets of my too-big jacket.
And that is that. Robert Pochop, my guide, is eager to get going. Over the next 24 hours, he will take me on endless trams and trains, to his favourite haunts and even to city limits, to show me what life as a homeless person – or at least his life – is like. “You will teach me something and I will teach you something,” he says. We wave goodbye to Klára and head down the cobblestone streets into the city.
Pragulic was created in 2012 by Tereza Jurečková and two fellow graduate students in the civil sector studies programme at Charles University. The idea: provide work for homeless people in the Czech capital and help others understand what life on the streets is truly like. “We want them to take the tour and do something,” Jurečková, told me later. Do what? “Start to care.”
It has eight guides, most of whom give two-hour walks with a mix of local lore and their personal experience. One guide named Václav takes visitors to the bridge where he lives with a handful of other people. He’s become so popular that customers have started to leave gifts for him.
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.”
Last year San Francisco evicted residents from an encampment under a highway overpass, and a week later, district supervisor David Campos – who in 2015 attempted to slow gentrification in the hopes of encouraging affordable housing – joined Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles in calling for a “state of emergency” over housing. Two years earlier, the mayor of Honolulu, Kirk Caldwell, had issued this rallying cry: “It’s time to declare a war on homelessness … We cannot let homelessness ruin our economy and take over our city.” Tourists, Caldwell said, didn’t want panhandlers to ruin their view of paradise. “I call it compassionate disruption – we are not doing it without heart.” Imagine if Caldwell knew tourists in some cities were being taken to look at the very thing that might ruin the view.
But like the favela tours that began in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1990s and the slum tours of Indian cities, excursions led by homeless guides bring inevitable questions of how much they help – and how much they may hurt. When does tourism become voyeurism? And do such tours enable the problems that may have contributed to a person’s homelessness in the first place?
“There are different kinds of homeless people,” Robert tells me. Not everyone is sleeping rough or in shelters. Some couch-surf or stay at hostels. Robert sleeps on the sofa at his late father’s flat, but may have to move by June when the flat is to be sold. To where, he doesn’t know.
Homelessness, as the British charity Crisis puts it, is about “more than rooflessness”: it is also a loss of one’s roots and identity, and the absence of a sense of belonging. Women often become homeless due to mental health issues or to escape an abusive relationship; for men it could come after the loss of a job or relationship, the result of drug abuse, what Robert calls “spirits abuse”, or following time in prison. Once they become homeless, the experience seeps right in. The challenges are to stay warm and clean, to find somewhere to sleep, to make money and to stay safe. Even without these challenges, I soon see that you can quickly feel a sense of otherness, at least for me. I don’t feel self-conscious so much as invisible, and at the mercy of the city.
Robert has a round face, wiry white beard and an almost unflappable smile. I guess he is near 60 but he turns out to be 48. He’s dressed in his only outfit: cargo trousers and a fleece jacket bearing the logo of Armáda Spasy – the Czech Salvation Army – (he sometimes works for the organisation and is a long-time churchgoer). When he takes off his hat, his hair sticks to his head with what I think is sweat and then realise is grease. He sees my eyes dart up and pats his hair down self-consciously.
We ride endless trams, crisscrossing Prague, and though I’m not always sure where we are headed, Robert seems to know how to get there. He pays roughly 3,650 koruna (£115) per year for a transit pass. Perhaps there is something about constant movement and a sense of purpose in having a destination that makes riding the rails such a satisfying pursuit.
At 5pm, night approaching, we walk to an almost-deserted platform at the central station and board a single-carriage train not much bigger than a minivan. There is a toilet inside – I learn to be on the lookout for a free loo – and an entryway closed off from the main passenger area. This is where we stay, separating ourselves from the other travellers, as we head away from downtown.
Robert is friendly and kind, but our conversations are elliptical and hard to follow. He speaks in nonsequiturs, sometimes to change the subject away from personal questions, but also because he can be as the Pragulic’s website puts it, “a little distracted”. It is not always clear where we are going or why.
He checks in with Jurečková on his mobile, and when he passes the phone to me I tell her that I think we are leaving the city. She tells me not to worry. “Robert can be … mysterious.” When we disembark 20 minutes later, it is almost completely dark.
He guides me up a street lined with mansion flats, around a corner and towards a dark lane with a single house at the end. A stranger crouches on the laneway with a basketball and watches us pass. We head away from the street towards a stand of trees, and I see the outline of some sort of tower in a clearing.
Just as I wonder if I should make my way back to the road, Robert turns us around. Soon we’re on a semi-suburban street under the glow of streetlights. A jogger startles me as he passes. “Don’t worry,” Robert says. “I understand you’re a single female here with no female friends. But don’t worry, I will not kill you.” Then in the next breath he tells me, apropos of nothing, about how he doesn’t need much money to get by, but if he did have more money he would start a business.
Moments later we find ourselves at a brightly lit bus stop and the city doesn’t seem so far away.
Long after dark, still wandering, I start to quiz him about where we would sleep that night. He doesn’t like shelters. He says they smell. On the other hand, the trains run until half past midnight, and the trams keep going until 4am. It is 45 minutes from one end of the line to the other, and we could nod off some of that time, he explains. “I am at your service,” he says. “My job is to give you a 24-hour tour, so I will stay up all night.”
But I want to see where other homeless people might go. He begrudgingly takes me to District Seven – the name of Prague’s neighbourhoods sound as if they inspired The Hunger Games – and down a dark industrial street. An older woman with a crutch moves slowly ahead of us and a man who’s seen better days shuffles behind.
Sure enough, a block later, there are a group of people waiting for the doors of the Salvation Army to open at 10pm. “If it was -16 degrees,” Robert says, “there would be 100 people here.” He chats to a Slovakian woman who continues talking to herself after we move on. A lone man paces several metres away. Another guy in his 30s asks Robert who I am. The man, whose two index fingers are wrapped in bandages – the result of being kicked out of a hostel one cold winter night for smoking – takes a look at me and smiles. “You’ve even got homeless clothes.”
A younger woman in Lycra bottoms and a puffa jacket smokes a cigarette with two male friends. She makes her way to the front, jockeying for a spot near the entrance. At 10, when the doors open a crack, she is one of a few people let in. Every couple of minutes, more disappear inside. Finally, we make our way through.
The shelter has a kind of dining hall. Lights out is at 11pm, so people quickly arrange their beds. One woman lays out a blanket on the floor and barricades her impromptu mattress with chairs along one side, a wall on the other and a table at her head and feet, her mobile phone charging nearby. Others find spots along the walls, between the tables – even under them. People take turns heating up food in the solitary microwave and boiling water with the kettle to make instant coffee.
The young woman in the bright tights is carrying food from the microwave to her table when she suddenly wheels around and yells at an older man. People are charging their phones in the outlets meant for the microwave and kettle, but can’t he see they need to heat up their food? She swipes at his face with her hand. Blood trickles over his eye. She had nicked the soft skin of his eyelid.
Nobody moves as he staggers around, trailing blood. Then the supervisor splits them up and takes woman to the lobby, where she appears to be pleading her case. A minute later, the bleeding man wanders their way, and the woman impulsively punches him. He falls to the floor. When he gets up, blood is gushing from his nose.
The supervisor is calm, but the woman is getting more agitated. An hour earlier she had quietly, eagerly waited to be one of the first in and now she is being kicked out. She is crying, perhaps at the prospect of losing a spot to sleep for the night, but her rage at the man bubbles underneath. She argues with the supervisor all the way to the front doors. Eventually, though, her voice fades away.
Earlier Robert had told me: “There are two choices: to be outside or inside, and there are chances of trouble outside.” There were, obviously, chances of trouble inside, too, but now I press him to let us stay. It is dry and warm and it doesn’t smell as much as he’d said. Was it any safer? I have no idea.
But I can’t convince him to sleep at the shelter. He heads away to speak with the supervisor, who offers to take me to a dormitory in the basement. Even in a hostel, it seems, there are the haves and the have nots. Robert says he will come back the next morning. It is the only time I see him upset.
The next morning when we meet up, I tell him that the Salvation Army staff caught me at 7am sitting inside writing and shuffled me along. “That is what it’s like in a shelter,” he says. “They’re nice to you and then they kick you out.”
Can a day on the streets change your perspective on homelessness or help you know how the other half lives? Of course it can. Whether such an immersion – or a two-hour tour – can make any lasting change in more than a couple of lives is a thornier question.
Maybe it is too much to ask a hostel that gives rough sleepers and other homeless a dry place at night to do more than it already has, or a tourist nonprofit that puts a bit of money in the pockets of the otherwise unemployed to help address all of their, and society’s, problems.
“If we thought it could hurt a guide we wouldn’t do it,” Jurečková says. Recently, Pragulic has begun to train people with more challenges, including a rough sleeper and a sex worker. Potential guides meet with a psychologist and are given two to three days of training. Then they practice over and over. About 50% drop out due to mental health issues or because they’re simply not ready. Pragulic is planning further outreach and talking with companies such as Google about helping on other projects, in part to make up for the lack of government funding.
Critics, though, believe the tours are little better than panhandling. John Smallshaw, a former heroin addict in London who completed an employment programme with the charity House of St Barnabas and now works at its private members’ club in Soho, dabbled in guiding. He argues that it can perpetuate the very things that contribute to homelessness. “The idea is quite brilliant to get people up on their feet, but most of the people I met were using it as a crutch,” he says. “I started by going on a tour in Mayfair, where the guy was so far ahead and didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. I suddenly realised: he wants to finish so he can get his fix.”
Smallshaw has no issue with tours themselves, though he says few people he guided were interested in learning about homelessness – but he believes it would be more useful as a social enterprise if it was regulated. “People stay in the life they’re in because they’ve got money coming in.”
In many respects, Robert is a good case study for the benefits of homeless tourism. He is neither a drug addict nor an alcoholic. Whatever challenges he faces, he is eager and willing. “I have two hands and I am ready to work,” he says.
He used to make about 2,000 koruna (£62) working two months per year on elections. Now, as a guide, he makes 22,000 koruna each year. Of the 2,300 koruna (£73) I pay Pragulic, he will pocket about half. “I am homeless but it not so bad,” he says. “I make money, but not enough to have a place to live.” He is one of a minority: in the UK, for instance, only 12% of homeless people work part-time and a mere 2% work full-time; the majority have been unemployed for more than three years. Still, Robert doesn’t receive government assistance, and come June he may well be turned out on the street.
One of his biggest challenges, it seems, is not alcohol, or drugs or even any specific mental illness, but loneliness. He promises to give me a tour of Slovakia the next time I visit, and says: “I am happy you are here because it is one day that I am not alone.” A few hours before we part ways, I ask if he is lonely, and he says something unvarnished and heartbreakingly obvious: “This is not a state you want to share with someone.”