Review by K. Austin
Rae Bridgman’s Safe Haven: The Story of a Shelter For Homeless Women
Safe Haven is an ethnography in which the content takes place in the city of Toronto and focuses primarily on a specific homeless shelter for women, called Savard’s. The fieldwork was conducted by Rae Bridgman over a period of five long years. She begins by walking the reader through the outreach process of physically locating chronically homeless, mentally ill women on the streets and trying to get them to stay at Savard’s. This task requires persistence and success is only achieved through the homeless woman’s capacity to trust the outreach workers.
Then, Bridgman proceeds by giving us descriptions of the interior of the home, along with descriptions of the residents. She explains the decision-making process in the design of the home and all the things that must be taken into consideration when dealing with homeless women (i.e. What have these women gone through?). For example, Savard’s decided to go with mobile nooks that had a bed with a curtain for privacy and drawers underneath, as opposed to four-walled bedrooms and a closed door. They considered the fact that the isolation of being closed off in a room may make some of the women feel unsafe because of past traumatic experiences. Bridgman also includes day-to-day staff logs which highlight each individual woman’s activities of the day. We are able to see changes in the residents’ lives as well as get an insight to how they view the world. The majority of the women in the home suffer from mental illness, and some others are immigrants. This characteristic of homeless women certainly puts an emphasis on the concept of “privilege”- privilege that the mentally ill and foreigners may not have, especially as women. Bridgman’s whole objective in conducting this study was to shed light on the homeless from a perspective that most would otherwise never be able to see.
Savard’s stands out in relation to other homeless shelters. They have genuine concern for the women who walk through their door (whether it be in, or out). Precautions are taken to make the women feel as comfortable as possible. The home is run by an all-female staff, residents are allowed to give feedback regarding their stay, changes are made to accommodate reasonable requests, and staff often befriend the women. There is one important concept that runs throughout the book; that is the concept of being a non-interventionist. Savard’s strives to intervene in the women’s lives as minimally as possible. This is in hopes that more women will want to stay in a home where they still have their freedom and where they don’t feel obliged to some sort of higher authority. Even the staff room was strategically placed away from the front entrance so the women wouldn’t have to feel like they were “checking in” every time they came through the door. It was supposed to be their home. Bridgman outlines the conflicts Savard’s staff members face in order to remain a non-interventionist home. To go along with this idea is a zero-bar policy. Women will not be asked to leave permanently, unlike most homeless shelters. Staff members struggle to find a balance where they can keep everyone safe, while still trying to help and support those who may not be conforming.
Overall, Bridgman talks about the day-to-day endeavors that homeless women face and the steps Savard’s goes through in order to help. This ethnography will hopefully inspire other shelters to use the same strategies and have the same mindset as Savard’s. The text emphasizes what makes Savard’s stand out so much among others. It is not just about getting women off the street to begin with, but also about keeping them off the street and genuinely having their best interest in mind instead of quickly resorting to shoving pills down their throat like too many shelters condone.
“The project aimed to support a small group of women living on the street that were the most difficult to serve. The idea was to provide a model with ‘some degree of stability, including a place to sleep, get food, access health care, and to find life skills support and companionship, be safe and out of the cold” (Women Street Survivor Project, Project Description, October 1996).
AUDIENCE AND ACTION
What makes Safe Haven a good ethnography is not so much the style in which it is written, but rather the portrayal of content. There are many ways one could characterize what a “good ethnography” is, but in this case, Safe Haven is unique to a few components. Traditionally, ethnographers are supposed to suppress the use of documenting in the first person. Bridgman, (along with an increasing amount of modern ethnographers), has defied that characteristic, but in doing so she has created the realistic impression that she was taking part in the fieldwork and the everyday life situations that go along with it. By incorporating quotes from the women, she has voiced their point of view. Although she did touch on specific individuals and their experiences, there is an overall generalization that explains the lives of homeless, mentally ill women. She manages to generate honest information with no obvious intrusion of personal bias. These are all characteristics of a good ethnography. Different types of readers may disagree, but that is why it is an important to realize what readership is best for Safe Haven.
There are several types of ethnographic readerships, but Safe Haven is perfect for students who are just beginning their anthropological studies. Bridgman uses only little professional jargon, and even then, she usually succeeds with some sort of definition. This allows students to not only learn the professional jargon, but also see how it is applied. Although, more mature students may find these extra explanations a bit redundant. Nonetheless, Bridgman discloses crucial information that can be useful to better our society. Readerships in other social sciences, especially sociology, could use the realities revealed throughout the reading to fuel social movements revolving around our homeless communities. Lastly, and most skeptical, organizations that fall under action-oriented readership (i.e. The government) could hopefully gain insight into the struggles homeless women, and homeless people in general, face. Real changes could be made if this study fell into the right hands. When people in powerful positions start to realize that the majority of homeless women are not homeless because they are “lazy” or drug addicts, but rather because they are mentally ill or that they have never had any sense of love and support in their lives, proper funding and facilities could finally be a practical right instead of a so-called “privilege”. Bridgman has potentially paved the path to larger conversations, which she should consider to be a success in itself.
“Municipalities and regions have distinct needs, and similar efforts may produce quite different results in other places: best practices may not translate from one context to another. Yet, we are still left with the question why ‘each city and each community organization … [should] have to “reinvent the wheel” when combating homelessness,'”(Glasser and Bridgman 1999:111).
COMPARATIVE ACADEMIC REVIEWS
Ferguson-Hood and Walker are referencing as associates for the Canadian Business Corporations Act (CBCA), (as noted in the header). The two praise Bridgman for her ability to “present the players, the politics, and the initial visions and the changes over time in both the visions and the practical reality,” (Ferguson-Hood & Walker, 2006). The non-interventionist theme is also noted in this review as well as the controversies that go along with trying to remain as or drift away from being a non-interventionist home. Ferguson-Hood and Walker conclude their review with, “Bridgman, by her absence of political posturing, challenges us to look at our assumptions and questions our complicity in all kinds of systemic oppression.” I too agree that Bridgman has done an exceptional job in unfolding truths about the neglected facets of society.
Flynn is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, which would imply that she has the necessary knowledge to critique in this field. She acknowledges Bridgman’s expertise that has matured through numerous long-term studies. Savard’s pursuing a non-interventionist approach is duly noted. “While weapons, violence, illegal drugs and alcohol were not permitted on the premises, on entering the shelter there were no intake interviews, forms to sign or searches to endure and while shelter residents were provided information and access to medical, legal and social services they were neither required to pursue these offerings nor even forced to take any prescribed medication,” (Flynn, 2011). Flynn also expresses confidence in Safe Haven‘s capacity to “spark productive debates” and reach the attention of activists, which I would also recognize as a noble contribution to society.
Word count: 1,448
Bridgman, Rae. Safe Haven: the story of a shelter for homeless women. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.
Coen Flynn, Karen. “Safe Haven: The Story Of A Shelter For Homeless Women.” Association for Feminist Anthropology. August 8, 2007. Accessed March 28, 2017.
Ferguson-Hood, Sharon, and Marie Tovell Walker. “Safe Haven: the story of a shelter for homeless women.” University of Manitoba. 2006.