"...our tour model is quite radical / non-hierarchical, the [homeless] guides take most of the money, as opposed to the coordinators/directors taking a salary, and our tours reveal some fairly controversial elements of city life..."
Lidija Mavra is one of the founders of Sock Mob Events (Web: www.sockmobevents.org.uk), a unique social enterprise coaching homeless people to lead guided city walking tours. She helped set up and drive the idea together with others from the Sock Mob, a volunteer network that regularly engages with London's homeless, which she started eight years ago. She is currently the lead volunteer coordinator, overseeing the day-to-day running of the enterprise. Lidija also leads "a parallel life" as a freelance social researcher to make a living.
ECOCLUB.com: First of all congratulations on winning the Responsible Travel Awards 2011! Please tell us who took the initiative for these tours and what was the original motivation and philosophical thinking behind it?
Lidija Mavra: The imperative to start the tours very much came from our homeless friends, following conversations with them that we had over many years through the Sock Mob (www.sockmob.org.uk) The Sock Mob is a group of friends who regularly walk through London to meet and spend quality time with our street friends, as we call them, using socks to break the ice, and mainly aiming to help alleviate the loneliness and isolation that people on the streets can experience. The philosophy behind the tours was that they would be both a new, creative and meaningful way for our homeless friends to make a living (as they co-create the tours with us who help, and take 80% of ticket sales), and also that it would be a fresh way of connecting people from diverse walks of life, i.e. encouraging people who might never speak to a homeless person to hear their stories and how they experience the city, while on the tours.
ECOCLUB.com: How many homeless live in London currently and how many participate in your tours? Is homelesness currently growing?
Lidija Mavra: Current estimates (from charities and grassroots groups working with the homeless) say that there are around 4,000 homeless people in London; and sadly, homelessness is definitely on the rise, given the economic climate and housing crisis in the UK, where not enough new social housing is being built at the same time as more and more people are losing their homes to repossession. One homelessness charity estimates that there will be 35,000 more people at risk of homelessness by Christmas this year. In terms of our tours, over the past year we have engaged 12 guides, and plan to coach several more in the new year.
ECOCLUB.com: How are decisions taken, are there any workers self-management / direct democratic elements?
Lidija Mavra: Decisions are taken by everyone involved in the enterprise - a social enterprise - which means the guides, coaches, and volunteers all have a say in how the tours are run and shaped in the future.
ECOCLUB.com: What were the main obstacles you needed to overcome, legal / bureaucratic ones, psychological ones, or financial?
Lidija Mavra: The main obstacles were in marketing this slightly new bizarre idea to potential customers! Many people thought we were mad when we started and that it would never work, but we've proven them wrong!
ECOCLUB.com: Is there a danger that the tours becomes too successful in the run-up to the London Olympics?
Lidija Mavra: Sorry, not sure what you mean by 'too successful'?
ECOCLUB.com: I meant if you see a danger of your tours becoming too popular or commercialised, also after the responsible tourism award, and the original homeless guides moving on or losing interest? Or of a commercial operator moving in and try to copy your model, as a "corporate social responsibility" stunt, at the same time exploiting the homeless? Or is the key to the success of the tours, the pre-existing long-term trust and genuine relations between the Sock Mob and the Homeless?
Lidija Mavra: No, we don't perceive there to be this danger, as our tour model is quite radical - non-hierarchical, the guides take most of the money (as opposed to the coordinators/directors taking a salary) and our tours reveal some fairly controversial elements of city life that could go against the grain of corporate interests. And yes, the long-standing trust we have built with the guides through the Sock Mob is key, and would be very difficult to replicate by a CSR body that just 'parachutes in'.ECOCLUB.com: What sort of people are attracted to your tours? Highly educated, curious social scientists, or people from all walks of life / around the world who enjoy a good walking tour?
Lidija Mavra: We get a wide diversity of people coming to our tours from across the socio-economic spectrum, around 50% from abroad (including tourists, social worker delegations, international students, and groups interested in social enterprise), and 50% from the UK/London, including families, couples, individuals, richer people, poorer people, students and lots of school groups... our tours are designed to appeal to anyone and everyone!
ECOCLUB.com: What are your future plans in relation to this project? Do you prefer to see the ex-homeless becoming full-blown, mainstream tour operators, or expanding the program to assist more homeless people?
Lidija Mavra: Our plans are that ultimately our guides take over the everyday running of Unseen Tours and mentor new guides - it's their enterprise, and we who coordinate see ourselves as temporary facilitators.
ECOCLUB.com: Do you feel that it could be replicated as a best-practice in other large metropolises, perhaps with a variation, given the current crisis, to include the long-term unemployed?
Lidija Mavra: Definitely, e.g. we've already had a successful replication in Melbourne, Australia! Check out Melbourne's Street Stories.
ECOCLUB.com: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?
Lidija Mavra: Just that they should come and experience the tours for themselves! They make a thought-provoking but also fun day out - all details at www.unseentours.org.uk
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much!