Advice for living on the street: Don’t be female.

Welcome to the Jungle

jungle bridgeThe Law of the Jungle (summarised as “only the strong survive”) is unfamiliar territory to most people who will be reading this blog. So unfamilar, in fact, that many of us like to think it doesn’t apply to the human experience. It does.

The content of this post is blunt, and possibly quite disturbing (that’s an attempt at “fair warning”). I’m not jaded, nor especially upset about it this week, it’s just that this issue has been on my mind for a while, and to not mention it would be leaving an important matter unspoken.

This is part of my reflections on Street Ministry. For others, see this list:

[post_list name=”Street Ministry”]

Warning: Abuse triggers

I want to make this crystal-clear:

If you have suffered sexual abuse, this article may trigger your trauma.

If you have any other unresolved sexual trauma, this article may trigger it, too.


Define “Normal”…?

The “Law of the Jungle” actually applies to the life experience of most humans, at most times in history. We, the educated, middle-class Westerners (if that’s not you, please drop me a note below. I’d love to meet you), have worked hard to reduce that in our interpersonal relationships. That’s great, of course, but it’s easy to assume that everyone else is sharing our own liberated experience. They aren’t.

In the street culture of Ipswich, the Law of the Jungle is the central paradigm of interpersonal interaction.


mural4_stoutBetween the men, this makes for a culture in which one’s reputation for violence is all-important. One must sustain a sufficiently impressive reputation to deter would-be bullies, while avoiding the possibility of implicitly challenging the dominance of some alpha male. One’s reputation can throw down gauntlets without one actually intending it to.

One of my early impressions was that it was like a school yard. That impression has been reinforced over time. Informal, but reasonably elaborate and fluid alliances exist between individuals and groups. These are constantly being affected by rumours, and the indignation that the rumours trigger. Most of the rumours are vexatious hearsay, and have the effect of testing the mettle of supposed alliances. One must be careful not to be caught selling-short one’s friendships based on false reports, but also not supporting a friend who is guilty of some outrage against the street community. It’s a tightrope. It’s stressful.

That’s a really terrible emotional atmosphere to live in. But it’s nothing compared to what the girls go through.


conan-with-womanBecause the men are completely tuned to a culture of competitive violence, their primary engagement with women is also within a power paradigm. What does that mean without the sanitising language? It means violent and abusive relationships are the norm.

Women living on the streets have two basic options: Get off the streets, or get a man. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. If you’re a woman on the streets and you aren’t someone’s girlfriend, you are in grave danger. You will be raped and robbed. You must have a boyfriend.

If you have a boyfriend, he is the one protecting you from being raped and robbed. In his view, this gives him virtual ownership over you. He will bash you. He will also rape you, and effectively rob you. Tragically, he knows that he can do this because at least he’ll be protecting you from everyone else doing it, and you’re less-bad-off with him than on your own. Leaving him is not an option because it instantly makes you vulnerable, not only to everyone else, but also to an enraged psychopath of an ex-boyfriend.

Having a boyfriend is effectively the least-bad option. Staying with an already violent boyfriend works out as the least-bad option, too, unless you can find an even more violent one who can protect you from the current one.

But there is one time when life can get better: Your boyfriend gets locked up.

If you have a violent boyfriend who is locked up, you have the best-of-both-worlds: You have a protector who is certain to avenge you when he returns if anyone should attack you, which does serve as a real deterrent. You also have a reprieve from the sexual and other violence that he visits upon you. The only thing to guard against is any rumour that you might be being unfaithful to him. If that should happen, see “enraged psychopath” above.

Helping Women: One precious heart at a time

In my experience, helping women to escape this environment is a process which starts with them recognising the problem and deciding to escape (as with all violent relationships).

The first practical help that will make a difference is to find them somewhere secure to live, where they are safe from their jilted psychopath, and also from all the others who would bash, rob, and rape them. Such places exist. DV Connect (at the bottom of this post), is the best place to start.

The next practical help is to connect them into relationships outside of the peer group they are exiting. If they have family or friends in another town, they need to make those contacts. If they stay in close contact with their existing peers they will return to the street. Unfortunately in many cases the family is actually part of the reason the girl is on the streets, and their other friendship circles are no less dysfunctional than the one they are coming from. At this point you find an almost inevitable return to the streets.

The likelihood of a successful extraction of a woman from the street community is staggeringly small. The fact is that the street community is all they know, and in most cases will return to it – it’s “home”.

The statistics for educated, financial women, with families and peer groups successfully escaping violent marriages are shocking, and on the streets the woman is infinitely less well equipped.

That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. It is! The place to start is her world view. If she can start to conceive of a universe in which the way she is being treated is not ok, she’s got a chance of reaching out for an exit.

Helping Men: Re-Imagining community

Again, this is “in my experience”, and in my opinion:

An individual man can be extracted from the community in a similar way to that of a woman. They have essentially the same infinitesimally small chance of success as the woman, for essentially the same reasons. My preference is to leave the men in the community but to transform their heart and their world-view. Here’s why (in my own brutal terms):

If you took every woman in the street community and suddenly healed their emotional torments, de-traumatised them, and made them healthy and strong, they would be re-tormented and re-traumatised within weeks, by the men.

Whereas, if you took every man in the street community and performed the same miraculous healing, all the women would quickly begin to heal, and would be nurtured and supported in that healing, by the men.

“Wow,” you’ll be thinking, “what a sexist pig!”

But this is a jungle. Men and women play different roles in the jungle. Men are dominant, and women are subjected to that dominance, for better or for worse. As go the men, so goes the community. It may not be appropriate to say of liberal, Western, educated communities, but in the jungle this is part of the Law (and the Lore).

Further to that, there’s no real point just focussing on individual men as separate projects. Each one is deeply bound by their relationship with the street community. Removing him from that, were it possible to do so, would render him useless as an agent of transformation for the rest of the community. Besides, it is almost impossible to do so. Taking the man out of the Street is one thing. Taking the Street out of the man is another.

The fact is, it’s a community problem. It needs a community solution.

The Community

The community itself must inculcate an alternative vision and enact it. It must, in other words, adopt an alternative narrative. That means: it must become possible within that cultural setting to perceive, and align one’s self, to a narrative which subverts and overturns the default one.

If the community can act as the crucible of both of these two narratives simultaneously, the old and the new, then the individuals in the community have a viable opportunity to adopt the second one.

That’s what we’re on about “in the Mall” on Tuesdays. We are weaving the Christian narrative into the street community, sparking it up in individuals, and fanning their fledgling faith into flame. It’s not about “saving” those individuals per se (that’s a happy consequence…). It’s about infecting the street culture with an alternative world view. It’s happening.

Final Advice

If you’re considering a life of homelessness, living under the bridge, in a park, or in the various squats around Ipswich, the best advice I can offer is this: Don’t be female.

Come to think of it, being a male on the streets is no fun either. But if you must make your way onto the streets, come and see me. I’ll be in the Mall on Tuesdays. I’ve got something for you that will change your life, and the lives of those around you. It’s already changing the little world of Ipswich’s street culture as I speak, so you’d better find out about it soon.

Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.

– Mark 9:1

For advice or support for cases of domestic violence, these resources are critically important. “Make the call“, whether it’s for you or for a friend.

DV Connect

DV Connect Women’s line: 1800 811 811

DV Connect Women’s line: 1800 600 636

facebook comments:

2 Responses so far.

  1. Kat Staples says:

    Oh man. What a harsh reality we live in!

  2. Thank God some have managed to carve out a less harsh one, and that we are living in it!

    It all comes down to community: its values and mores. Some communities have poisonous ones. The medicine acts at world-view level.

    In some (important) ways, including the injustice and power imbalances in general, but also the gender imbalance, this picture has key parallels with the world into which Jesus spoke. He was sewing the kingdom of God into a subjugated people. The result was a tectonic shift in world history.

    His message matters.

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