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August 19, 2017

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Homeless tour guides reveal a darker side of England's capital city

LONDON -- Like many other Londoners who make a living showing tourists around the city, Viv is telling a group of visitors how Waterloo Bridge was largely rebuilt by women after World War II.

But Viv, 56, is no ordinary tour guide. She is homeless — and the stairs under the bridge, which boasts majestic views of the Houses of Parliament and St. Paul's Cathedral, were once her home.

"I lived there for two months," she tells the sightseers. "I had a patch made of wooden pallets, newspapers and cartons."

With a gaunt face and several missing teeth, and wearing a neat beige mackintosh that she found in the street, Norwegian-born Viv shows tourists the British capital as seen through the eyes of one of its homeless residents.

She is among half a dozen homeless guides working with Unseen Tours — a scheme launched by the volunteer network Sock Mob — weaving tales of their own lives on the streets into their walking tours.

Viv — her past means she only wants to be known by her first name — starts her tour in the Victoria Embankment Gardens on the edge of the River Thames.

An imposing statue of the 19th century industrialist William Edward Forster looks over the manicured gardens, which were Viv's home for four summers.

"That used to be my bench," she says, pointing at a family eating sandwiches nearby.

"You're very safe in a park, because they close the park at night. You don't get attacked by the public."

Homeless Londoners hear about "spare" benches through word of mouth, she adds. She speaks quickly, the sweat on her brow revealing her nerves.

Attacked for Being Homeless

Viv guides the group from the bath where Charles Dickens once took a dip to a tea hut frequented by taxi drivers for over a century, before stopping at the Savoy Hotel to tell the story of the wooden cat that sits in its lobby.

The handsome 3-foot (0.9-meter) cat, named Kaspar, is brought out to join unlucky parties of 13 diners at the opulent hotel to make up their numbers to 14, Viv explains.

Without pausing, she adds that up to 200 people used to sleep in the archway next to the Savoy until the authorities began fencing it off at night.

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